The NHS at 70: tech through the ages

You’ll probably be aware that our wonderful NHS has just turned 70.

Here at Clarity, we’re proud to be engaged in helping to shape the future of technology in healthcare. But the NHS’ birthday has been making us gaze into the past, too. How much has technology changed? And how might it change further in the not too distant future?

The calm before the storm

For most of the NHS’ history, technological innovation as we now know it was scarce.

Medical innovation in the 20th century was rapid and dramatic, taking UK life expectancy for men from 66 in 1950 to nearly 80 today. In 1948 women spent 14 days in hospital after giving birth; the average today is closer to one. In 1955, ultrasound was first used in obstetrics; in 1963 the first liver transplant was made; and in 1975 whole body CT scans were introduced for the first time.

Then, in 1988, the first comprehensive breast and cervical screening process was introduced for women, which has since saved thousands of lives, every year.

But it wasn’t until 1990 that technology started to change how UK healthcare operated, as opposed to specific outcomes for certain types of patients. As the rest of the world reacted to the emergence of mass-market computer use, the very first managed print services became available to healthcare organisations, allowing them to improve the way patient records were kept and organised.

NHS

 

In 2002, the NHS National Programme for IT was introduced, which formalised its attempts to deliver a fully centralised electronic care record database, connecting healthcare providers, Trusts and GPs around the UK. UK healthcare had to try to keep pace with digital changes that were exceeding all expectations. And in this new digital age, hospitals and GP surgeries suddenly felt outdated and archaic. Digital technology went from being a curiosity in the late 20th century to one of the most fundamental drivers of change in the 20th century.

Digital technology in the NHS today

Such is the pace of digital change in the UK and globally that the NHS still feels like an organisation playing catch up. Cyber attacks like the one that occurred in 2017 have illustrated this problem dramatically. But in other ways, there are very positive signs that the NHS is starting to see the opportunity to use innovative technology to transform patient care.

Wearable technologies and smartphone add-ons are already being tested to solve the bed blocking challenge. With many patients not discharged simply because they require monitoring, wearables can revolutionise patient care, allowing patients to go home and be automatically monitored. Web conferencing is growing among clinicians and healthcare professionals, allowing the vital sharing of expertise in an increasingly efficient and simple manner. And the cloud management of data is now breaking into the NHS, too.

 

This barely scratches the surface, though. The tidal wave of technological innovation around the world has breached UK healthcare – and it’s set to continue.

How does the future look?

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint precisely which technologies will have the biggest impact on the NHS and patient care in the future. But the opportunities are abundant.

Many ask whether the NHS will eventually go paperless – but rather, we should be asking when. Equally, if the NHS can make better use of the mind-boggling amount of patient and medical data it holds, our health services and collective wellbeing will inevitably benefit. And it’s easy to imagine a future of fast, simple online consultations with healthcare professionals – saving time and expense, and making huge dents in inefficiencies.

Future of Healthcare Technology

 

Technology, as we can attest, will play a huge role in improving the NHS workforce too. But as is the case with the rest of the healthcare technological landscape, the key to breakthroughs is healthy competition. We’ve seen time and again across multiple industries that competition drives innovation – but in the NHS, competition is sometimes stifled.

E-rostering, which is frequently cited by NHS leaders and healthcare experts as the key to the future of the NHS workforce, is currently managed within 60% of NHS trusts by just one legacy provider. It’s a near-monopoly that threatens innovation in the future.

But with the right amount of competition and an increasingly open mind to digital change, there are many reasons to feel optimistic about the future of the NHS. Here’s to another 70 years of meaningful innovation that continues to improve outcomes for patients.

05/07/2018


Irina Buzdugan