The Prime Minister’s recent pledge to increase the National Health Service budget by £20bn a year may have been an attempt to win over voters and distract the public from cabinet rows, Tory rebels, and near constant complaints about her handling of Brexit.
Instead, the announcement drew fresh criticism about how the proposed funding increase, equivalent to 3.4 per cent a year, was still far short of the four per cent rise experts say the service needs. It ignited warnings of another crisis come winter, and brought fresh scrutiny onto the NHS.
Putting aside how Theresa May will afford this present to the NHS ahead of its seventieth birthday on 5 July, questions are rightly being asked about the best use of the money. How can NHS organisations continue to increase productivity and efficiency, reduce waste, and improve health outcomes for patients?
Technology is probably on May’s mind. Her budget announcement came hot on the heels of a speech she made late last month, calling on the health service to work with the tech sector to make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to transform healthcare by, among other things, quickly and accurately predicting chronic diseases.
Certainly one group keen for technology to make more of an impact is the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), which launched a campaign this week to “automate the state”, urging for the pace of automation in healthcare – and public services more broadly – to be increased in light of the budget announcement. Its research predicts that automation could save the taxpayer £17bn a year by 2030, almost covering the proposed NHS budget increase.
Among the TPA’s proposals is a call to automate the role of the GP receptionist by moving to a secure online platform for booking appointments, in order to save time and effort for both the patient and surgery.
Another is to integrate automated processes and sensor technology to monitor a hospital patient’s vital signs, allowing nursing staff to focus on more pressing matters.
“Automation of jobs in the public sector is inevitable in the coming decades, and there is a way to automate the public sector that is beneficial to all,” says Andrew Allum, chairman of the TPA.
“Public services would be better, faster, and cheaper. The private sector has a serious skills shortage, and unemployment is very low, so now is the time to begin releasing people from repetitive public sector jobs to do more rewarding and valuable private sector jobs.”
However, automation and technology are not the answer on their own. According to Dr Hamish Graham, manager of the Pfizer Healthcare Hub which works with health technology startups, skilled entrepreneurs are also a piece of the puzzle.
“Technology is often a tool, and it doesn’t matter how good the tech is, the entrepreneurs bringing that technology forward, and their vision for how it’s going to change the world, actually make things happen. Often, the entrepreneurs are the secret that unlocks the power of the technology.”
One such entrepreneur looking to revolutionise the healthcare sector is Raja Sharif, founder and chief executive of FarmaTrust, which uses blockchain technology and AI to track and trace pharmaceutical drugs across the globe.
The World Health Organisation reported in November that 10 per cent of drugs in circulation in developing countries were fake, leading to tens of thousands of deaths due to ineffective – and potentially poisonous – pills.
“It’s not just an issue in the developing markets, we have this problem in the developed world,” says Sharif.
“A lot of kids who are buying pharmaceutical drugs from these online pharmacies tend to get fake or poisonous drugs, which can cause them serious problems, or even death in some cases.”
FarmaTrust’s system tracks a packet of drugs from the point of manufacture to the point of consumption, as well as collecting data at various points of the supply chain. The company’s system can also track the expiry dates on drugs, and can alert institutions to when a product is about to expire, which could prevent waste. It’s estimated that unused medicines cost the NHS £300m annually.
And by collecting all this data, Sharif says FarmaTrust will be able to use its AI to start making predictions about what drugs will be needed where, and in what quantity, in order to make the drug-making process more efficient.
“In the UK, there is a lot of waste in certain institutions, including the NHS, because they don’t have transparency of which drugs they’ve got where, and how much they need in the future. So we really want to get in to helping a lot of these institutions become more efficient and more calibrated in terms of their needs, and help save lives as well as money.”
The NHS has been criticised for being slow to adapt to new innovations and ways of working, with complaints that bureaucracy holds it back. But this is unfair – its history is actually one of tremendous technological change, from new surgical techniques to wonder drugs and DNA sequencing.
“If you spoke to someone 70 years ago, and told them people would be putting cameras in pills that could see their insides, without them even being in hospital, they probably wouldn’t even believe you. If you told them that people would have surgery with lasers and robots, they wouldn’t have believed it,” says Graham.
“The future in 70 years’ time is harder to imagine, because we only know what we’ve got now and what we can see emerging.”
And what we see emerging is the integration of the blockchain, automation, personalised medication, and bespoke preventative care.
If the NHS were a person, it would already have retired and started collecting its state pension at the ripe old age of 70. But with a prescription to adopt new technologies being brought to market by innovative entrepreneurs, the service may be set to continue working and could receive a much cleaner bill of health in the future.