Thursday 4 July 2019 7:51 am

The NHS needs to plan for today, not 10 years into the future

Lord Victor Adebowale is chair of Social Enterprise UK and co-founder at Visionable.

The NHS was built with one key purpose: to address social inequality by making the best healthcare available to everyone. For years, that aim has driven technological innovations that power better provision of care. 

However, as we mark 71 years from when it was founded, the NHS is operating in a very different world – one where the discussions about innovation are focused on what can be done in three, five or 10 years’ time, instead of right now. 

The exciting technology of the future might be an interesting conversation, but it’s not going to help the patients and clinicians that need support now. Overwhelmed by demand, our healthcare system needs tools and partners that help it continue to deliver on its much-loved mission today.

With so many opportunities to digitalise, it is not original to suggest that tech might be at least part of the answer. Each and every NHS plan that a government has delivered has included improving healthcare efficiencies through technology in some shape or form. 

Yet there is still an underlying misconception that it is impossible for the NHS to successfully adopt new technologies. The truth is that previous programmes have failed to recognise reality, costing too much and delivering too little – that’s why a digital NHS remains a promise on paper, rather than a true reality. 

The next steps

The issue is that we are having the wrong conversations about the wrong technologies. 

All too often, solutions focus on a top-down or “one-size-fits-all” approach, such as forcing tools built for the corporate world into the “uncorporate” NHS. These technologies aim for flashy disruption, rather than supporting and working with the grain of the much-loved institution. 

The reality is that the NHS is inherently complex. Doctors across the country face very different challenges, so to be truly effective, technology used at any stage of care must be unique to the needs of patients and clinicians.

The NHS has the ability and opportunity to digitalise now, but only if we focus on the right elements of healthcare and do it for the right reasons. Developments in artificial intelligence and wearables certainly hold promise, but the primary focus should be the opportunities with technologies that already exist and are in use today. 

Medical innovations such as robotic surgery, IVF, and 3D printing have taught us huge lessons on the potential of technology in healthcare. 

Where are the opportunities?

The greatest opportunities lie in connecting the dots between what’s needed and what’s possible now to empower clinicians to do what they do best, more effectively, and in a shorter time frame. They are the real heroes, so successful adoption relies on using technology that works with the grain of the NHS and facilitates clinicians in their role, rather than adding to the complexity.

Here’s one example that’s happening right now. Under the current NHS Long Term Plan, all GP practices must offer virtual clinic capabilities by April 2020. A lot of work is needed to get ready for that shift, and the best way is by integrating virtual appointments within existing GP practices, not replacing them. 

Last week, NHS England outlined ways to reform patient registration, funding and contracting rules to ensure choice and the right access to integrated care. Having listened to the teething issues of integrating virtual GP appointments into the system, the report suggested adding a requirement for face-to-face consultations to help iron out those problems. 

Building a better NHS today means providing the tools that help deliver better ways of working for clinicians, as well as better patient care. Video collaboration and virtual appointments are the start of this journey, as well as the future of healthcare provision that will place the NHS in people’s pockets.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.