The power of technology to make lives better

    28 March 2019

    It was a packed house at One Great George Street on Monday morning as Health Secretary Matt Hancock kicked off the Spectator Health Summit. After reminding us that he is so keen on technology that he has his own app, the Health Secretary made a moral case for embracing the digital revolution in health and social care. His warning that ‘fear can triumph over reason’ could be taken as a criticism of the precautionary principle that is often at the heart of the EU’s approach to regulation and he cited IVF as an example of technology that was once controversial but has now improved the lives of millions of people who would not otherwise have had children.

    There is no doubt that artificial intelligence, robotics and genomics have the potential to greatly improve diagnosis and treatment. Neil Mesher, chief executive of Philips UK and Ireland, emphasised how cancer services will be transformed by digitising pathology services. Neil noted that typically a cancer patient goes through over fifty different IT systems during their treatment, representing fifty opportunities for patient data being lost or not enacted upon and medical technology has the power to easily solve this problem. Richard Kerr of the Royal College of Surgeons said that cataract surgery is also going to be revolutionised by smart technology. Professor Robert Plomin, who specialises in behavioural genetics at King’s College London, explained how harnessing genomics to make predictions from birth could transform preventive healthcare. There are also gains to be had from some less glamorous developments. In his keynote speech, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said that, in terms of simple efficiency, the best buy in health technology at the moment is digital voice recognition. He also expects hepatitis C to be eradicated in Britain by 2025 thanks to new medicines.

    The $64,000 question is how well equipped is the NHS to integrate current and future health technology into existing systems? This was no time for naive optimism. Although broadly ebullient in his opening remarks, Matt Hancock struck a note of realism when he noted that British citizens are able to file for divorce online but many of them still don’t have the option of booking a GP appointment online.

    Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told us that the UK has fewer MRI scanners and fewer CT scanners than most European countries. Neil Mesher touched on the training that is required for hospital staff to support this digital revolution – something that Philips will provide.

    An appetite for change at every level of the organisation is essential if the NHS is to embrace new digital opportunities, but while Hancock called on the NHS’s 1.3 million workforce to look for ways to innovate, several speakers argued that willpower is not enough. Implementing the impressive technology of the future requires dealing with the mundane problems of the present: motivating workers, allocating resources, setting priorities, training staff. Sara Gorton (UNISON) and Richard Murray (King’s Fund) argued that the £20 billion funding boost that is being delivered over the next four years is on the margin of what the service needs to carry out the basics.

    Yes there needs to be more integration between NHS services – and Simon Stevens assured us that this was a priority, and of course the NHS could always use more money, but there is low-hanging fruit to be plucked and new technology can be cost-saving as well as cost-inducing. There are, as Neil Mesher said, huge opportunities to reduce costs and improve patient outcomes by diagnosing illnesses earlier using AI technology and, as Professor Plomin said, there are extraordinary gains to be had by applying the lessons of genetics to public health screening. Of course any technology developed must be safe, ethical and effective for both the patient and the system – a pointed made by Dr Indra Joshi, the clinical lead for the NHS’s major digitilisation project.

    Britain is a world-leader in these fields, as it is in pharmaceuticals. If NHS bosses view the best of the new technology as a genuine investment and incentivise staff to use it well, Mr Hancock’s optimism will be warranted.