Digital and health tech…. wait for it… revolution

Sabine Tyldesley

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has his own app. Yes that is old news by now. Because he used to be Minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with responsibility for digital, he is now determined to bring tech and digital to the NHS. Yes that, too is common knowledge now in the Westminster bubble.

But after publishing 123 announcements mentioning “digital”; 34 mentioning “technology” and 10 mentioning “artificial intelligence” since Hancock’s appointment in July 2018, how warranted is the talk of a digital and tech revolution in healthcare?

I attended the GIANT Healthcare innovation conference last week, which was an extravaganza of innovative solutions to the health and wellbeing challenges of today, and which promised Matt Hancock as one of the keynote speakers.

Instead the attendees listened attentively to Hadley Beeman, Hancock’s tech adviser, who paraphrased that the Department for Health and Social Care was focussing almost entirely on identifying and eliminating barriers which are more basic than one might think:

The Department’s focus on what she called a “federal technology infrastructure” looked at barriers to users’/patients’ experience; interoperability; and seamless connection into NHS databases.

The example she used to visualise some of the challenges facing the health services was that of clicking on a link within an email provider’s application and seamlessly being redirected to the local installed browser to display the page from the URL hyperlinked in the email. These are some of the most basic technical functions which currently are not always possible.

Of course, some of the solutions demonstrated at the event showcased some of the most advanced diagnostics and data solutions, such as algorithmic determination of possible conditions, machine learning, and using block chain for patient records.

However, the Department made very clear on that day, that despite regular announcements on the digital revolution for healthcare, current priorities are getting tech standards agreed to even allow the safe use of innovative solutions for patients.

What the Department’s announcements about the “digital/ tech healthcare revolution” do not distinguish is the clear separation between cutting edge scientific advances in medicine aided by technology (genome mapping; predictive diagnostics using AI) versus the technological support systems for – what is for most patients still – an analogue experience of receiving advice or treatment (online health information on nutrition; online GP consultations or referrals).

This in turn sits separately from data and technology aimed at making clinicians’ work/life easier (for example to allow access to patient data for practitioners operating across primary and secondary care).

“Outdated and obstructive NHS IT systems will become a thing of the past”, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said as he launched his technology vision in The Future of Healthcare. At the event, one delegate described how it took her 6 months to get a URL link on her hospital trust’s website for a new mental health referral service. Another gave a talk on efficient GP services suggesting doctors should be doing triage on the phone in the mornings to ease the pressure on the surgery waiting room each day. The phone(!). The telephone(!!!). Alexander Graham Bell who invented it in 1885 would be pleased to ‘save lives’, but in 2018 where people using more than one communications device and mode is the norm, it doesn’t seems to get more analogue than that.

Meanwhile research centres and the private sector are already reacting to patient’s demands for technological solutions to their health questions, needs or specialist conditions.

The Government’s consultation on a new code of conduct for artificial intelligence (AI) and other data-driven technologies is currently being assessed in advance of publication of the next version of the document in December. This promises to allow NHS patients to benefit from the latest innovations.

The Topol Review, led by cardiologist, geneticist, and digital medicine researcher Dr Eric Topol exploring how to prepare the healthcare workforce (including NHS staff) to make the most of game-changing technologies such as genomics, digital medicine, artificial intelligence and robotics published its interim report in June, and will publish its final review in early 2019.

HealthTech Connect a platform to help innovators express interest and access support from NICE and NHS England for example was due to launch in November 2018 but is still “in development”.

In conclusion, while “in Cambridge, we’re on the cusp of sequencing the 100,000th genome, on our way to a target of 5 million genome” as Hancock proudly states, the digital revolution promised for patients by the Health Department is still very much in beta testing mode |||||||||||||||| 74% buffering.

PS: The average age of MPs elected at the 2017 General Election was 50.

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