Preventing illness with technology can make Britain healthy again and spare the NHS

Hamish Grierson
Labour Party Conference 2017- Day One
More money spent on preventing illnesses would lift pressure off the NHS (Source: Getty)

This month, it was revealed that a staggering 90 per cent of councils in the UK have slashed funding to preventative healthcare services.

The research released by trade publication Pulse revealed that cuts were made to services including weight management, sexual health, and addiction in a bid to save cash. Some areas, the survey of 80 local authorities showed, are getting rid of these services altogether.

This devastating news is made even more troubling when you consider that one in four people still die from preventable illnesses. Conditions like respiratory problems or heart disease are entirely avoidable.

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What’s more, the effect of failing to manage long-term illnesses like this reaches far beyond shortening lifespans. It impacts mental health, and drastically reduces quality of life.

The truth is that these issues, as outlined by the report, are the direct result of poor planning and under-investment in prevention in the first place.

As statistics by the ONS show, public health expenditure in England amounts to just about five per cent of total health spending. In 2013-14, the average spent per head on preventative initiatives was £49, compared to an average £1,742 spent on treatment by the NHS.

Since its foundation in 1948, the NHS has been modelled on delivering treatment over prevention. However, as we have seen by worsening healthcare crises each year, the NHS envisioned by Aneurin Bevan is arguably no longer fit for purpose.

In order to deliver care that’s free at the point of need, we must invest in preventative measures and solutions that empower people to have agency over their health.

Unfortunately, investing in preventative measures simply doesn’t appeal to politicians today, because there are no immediate results or political glory in doing so.

Too often, preventative care just isn’t taken seriously. And it’s easy to see why. Many of the existing campaigns have failed to deliver behavioural change.

The large proportion of spending in “prevention” is actually spent on “healthy condition monitoring”. This means programmes such as health checkups and public information campaigns for alcohol and substance misuse, smoking cessation, sexual health and obesity.

In many cases, these amount to marketing campaigns and adverts on the sides of buses. But posters and leaflets alone are not going to fix our problem of growing obesity and type 2 diabetes.

More importantly, short-termist approaches to policy-making and inconsistent investment in a jumble of measures lead us to a circular problem: prevention cannot prove its value when its services are underfunded.

In general, we as a nation are overweight, under-active, and largely in the dark about our own health. We grow more unhealthy and the pressure on our health service mounts, so inevitably the urgent continues to crowd out the important.

The government has a responsibility to provide a sick-care service, and to address pressing issues like staff retention, queues for beds, and cancer waitlists. But all too often this prioritisation means that preventative measures get cut.

It is therefore worth asking whether this funding would have been cut if we could prove that preventative care was effective. What if we could drastically change the model of prevention, making the case for greater investment, and save money in the long term?

To do that, we should turn our gaze to the vast range of technological advances at our fingertips today.

Innovations like body-tracking, data analytics, machine learning, and DNA-testing offer us an unprecedented level of granularity of information, and are enabling a new age of empowerment and autonomy in preventative – and indeed personal – healthcare. There are equally significant developments within blood testing – sometimes considered as outmoded.

Despite a failure from the government to get onboard with these services, consumers are already voting with their wallets and, armed with convenient, affordable tools that provide frictionless access to personal information, are finding solutions that help them to live the lives they want to live.

Think how much more could be saved if the NHS diverted resources from marketing campaigns into making these tools available to all.

We can now begin to make real strides in offering data-powered prevention, and billions of dollars are being invested globally into disruptive healthtech companies that understand data, consumer behaviour and, crucially, user experience to make products that are both meaningful and effective.

Technology can and will enable us to be and remain healthier for longer, but we need to invest now. This is the opportunity to make the preventative healthcare dream a reality.

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