Karen Livingstone, National Director at SBRI Healthcare, considers how the NHS could achieve the lofty ambitions of the Long Term Plan – and how some of the companies funded by the institution could provide help
In January, NHS England published its eagerly anticipated Long Term Plan, setting out its priorities for how the service will operate over the next ten years. The Plan aims to address some of the most pressing medical challenges of our age and includes its assessment of the role that technology must play in the future of the healthcare system. The ambitious task that the NHS now faces is how to support digitally enabled care to be mainstreamed throughout the NHS. But how viable is this task, and what areas stand to benefit the most from a digital revolution?
Innovation holds the key to a technology enabled vision for the NHS, and for the Long Term Plan to be deemed viable, innovators must now work to meet core healthcare needs. The good news is that there are already numerous British medtech companies working with NHS practitioners and innovation accelerators to meet these challenges. And as a result, there’s a strong pipeline of pioneering products and services making their way in to our healthcare system as we speak.
Reducing pressure on primary care has been outlined in the plan as a major priority, with GP practices and hospital outpatients currently providing around 400 million face-to-face appointments each year. In addition to the staff shortages currently facing the NHS, this has created a major crisis and one that technology must answer.
As such, the Long Term Plan has set out ambitions for a Primary Care Network and promises that over the next five years, every patient will have the right to online ‘digital’ GP consultations. Plans for redesigned hospital support will avoid up to a third of outpatient appointments – saving patients 30 million trips to hospital, and the NHS over £1 billion a year. Additionally, GP practices – those that typically each cover 30-50,000 people – will now receive investment that enables them to work together to alleviate primary care pressures and extend the range of relevant local services, creating genuinely integrated teams made up of GPs, community health and social care staff.
These policies, backed by a new guarantee that over the next five years, investment in primary medical and community services will grow faster than the overall NHS budget, has created a great window of opportunity for medtech innovators. And the innovators are primed and ready to show just how transformative their innovative medtech solutions can be for the NHS, with several exciting new technologies being developed.
365 Response (£99,658 funding from SBRI) for example, connects the network of suppliers across ambulance, taxi and mental health services through one shared platform. Originally developed following the death of the business owner’s father (Derek Fatchett MP) while waiting for an ambulance to reach him, the dispatch software ensures the effective and timely deployment of ambulances to help prevent the repeat of such a tragedy. In a similar vein, Doc Abode (£999,960 funding from SBRI)is a service innovation that works alongside NHS 111 to maintain a roster of thousands of GPs to fulfil out-of-hours needs by matching clinician availability to patient needs in real-time, depending on availability, proximity and expertise. Both technologies aim to reduce pressure on both primary and emergency care services and enable NHS staff to work more effectively.
In addition to staff pressures, mental health is a key area of focus in the plan, with a commitment to increase funding for mental health services by £2.3 billion per year. There is a growing body of evidence that points to the dramatic impact that technology can bring to bear in the field of mental health treatment, and the NHS must look to harness its potential. In order to achieve the ambitious plans for providing 24/7 mental health crisis support, this investment must be put towards developing new innovative treatments, as well as improving patients access to care.
One example of a technological innovation making an impact in the field of mental health is Pro Real ( £1,087,117 funding from SBRI), an immersive, virtual reality platform that allows people to describe difficult thoughts and feelings via an avatar. Studies on treatment so far have indicated that, although it might seem counterintuitive, some patients greatly benefit from interacting with a non-human, tech interface: the findings suggest that some patients may need a degree of detachment in order to have the confidence to role play difficult scenarios.
Technology innovation can also empower patients to take control of their own mental health care. For example, P1vital (£99,958 funding from SBRI) is a machine learning app allows patients with depression to predict at an early stage in their treatment whether or not their antidepressant is working. This is not only hugely important for patients themselves but has the potential to drastically reduce the economic burden of depression, which currently costs the NHS and the wider economy over £11bn a year.
Combating life-threatening diseases has, of course, always been a top priority for the NHS, and the Long Term Plan places an emphasis on early diagnosis to ensure that patients have the best chance at survival. Last year, PM Theresa May made a commitment to improving cancer diagnosis so that by 2028, three in four patients will be diagnosed at an early stage.
To achieve these goals, the NHS must transform its methods, to not only free up staff so that more patients can be seen more quickly, but by introducing technologies that accelerate diagnosis of illnesses by GP’s and healthcare practitioners. C the Signs (£1,099,519 funding from SBRI) is an app that is doing just that, by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to allow GPs to identify as early as at the very first appointment which patients are most at risk of which types of cancer. Integrating this innovation throughout the healthcare system will allow doctors to specifically target those at the most risk and ensure care is given to help prevent the patient from getting to a terminal stage of cancer.
The Long Term Plan lays out ambitious goals for the NHS, and so it should. It has called out for both emerging and existing technologies to play a leading role in helping the NHS achieve its long-term objectives. Nevertheless, a significant challenge remains in determining how the inspiring and potentially life-saving new technologies make their way into the healthcare system and are deployed swiftly and consistently nationwide for the benefit of patients and staff. Integrating innovations across the whole of the NHS will take time, but ultimately, for the Long Term Plan to succeed, technology must lead the way.
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