Healthcare: last tech frontier in the public sector

Technology dominates every aspect of society. This is not an argument, this is a fact that has been apparent for the past three decades. Technology has caused enormous societal changes: social media has enabled us to widen our reach and communicate with different audiences, automation has enhanced supply chain and manufacturing and mobile banking has changed customers’ relationships with a predicted 72% of the adult population banking via a mobile phone app by 2023.  However, the public sector remains relatively un-‘digitised’, least of all in the healthcare sector. Although strides are being taken to reverse this, such as the signing of the Local Digital Declaration in 2018, in which numerous councils and sector bodies across the UK recognised the opportunity to reshape public services through technological development that best meet citizens’ needs, there is still a long way to go on the healthcare sector’s digital engagement journey.

Big ideas always start small

The Secretary of State for Healthcare, Matt Hancock, has expressed big plans for the future of the NHS. At the Spectator Health Summit in March this year, he set out his vision for the future NHS to include robotics, artificial intelligence and genome sequencing as a “routine, everyday part of healthcare”.

Hancock’s enthusiasm to fully embrace the tide of technology is a step in the right direction, but focusing on some of the biggest technological advances the world will ever see is very ambitious. There are several other (and smaller) measures healthcare providers including the NHS can introduce to maximise the NHS’s digitalisation journey. Although the NHS mobile app, launched back in July of 2018, where patients can check their symptoms and connect with their GP practice to book appointments, was a step in the right direction, we can look to other countries for applicable examples of digital healthcare.

It’s not about the hardware

One of the common misconceptions about the challenges faced by the NHS is that its problems are caused by the fact that many hospitals operate on mainframes. Commentators frequently present older computers as archaic or inflexible; some even argue that hospitals with this ‘mainframe’  mentality are a barrier to digital enhancement. But running on a mainframe does not have to be a hindrance in the digital engagement journey; these computers were designed specifically to handle the type of data-heavy applications needed by the medical profession. For example, in the USA, every single provider of healthcare runs on a mainframe – thanks to its scalability, security, adaptability and reliability. These same healthcare providers also offer digital services, including virtual doctor appointments and teleconsultations.

Apps can bring ‘appiness’ to patients

With over 80% of smartphone or tablet time spent in an app rather than a mobile web browser, mobile apps could be the answer for the NHS to achieve digital transformation: they are fast, interactive, easy to personalise and instantly accessible from anywhere. To prove that healthcare is the next public sector to be propelled on its digital engagement journey, private equity firms and venture capitalists are investing billions of pounds into it. For example, Accrux, a messaging app service for medical teams and patients, has just raised £8.8M in Series A funding. It can be used as a way for doctors to send advice, notify a patient of results, remind them to book an appointment and leave messages. In addition, all this communication is automatically saved in a patient’s medical records. The messaging app has the potential to strengthen doctor-patient relationships whilst also being the answer for the NHS to respond to app-savvy, more consumer-focused generation. It is both cost effective and cost efficient – and also could help to reduce the costs of missed GP appointments which amount to £216m per year.

Teleconsultations just as popular as face-to-face consultations

Looking at our European neighbours, teleconsultations are already highly popular in Nordic countries. According to LIVI, in Sweden, 45% of the queries that come into general practice surgeries can be dealt with digitally. These virtual visits are also two-thirds cheaper than in-person visits. This has the potential to free up doctors’ time and reduce pressure on GP surgeries, where doctor shortages are a growing issue for the NHS due to a fall by 1,000 in the GP workforce over the past year. Furthermore, teleconsultations are a big hit with the younger generation for their simplicity and convenience –  in the US, two-fifths of Americans ages 22-38 now seek routine medical services virtually according to a recent Accenture report.  The ease that apps offer to younger people also provides an opportunity to reduce missed appointment rates, as the majority of no-shows at GP appointment are aged 16-30. Switching to online consultations is not only beneficial for patients;  GPs are given the flexibility to work from home and chose the hours, ultimately helping those working mothers and fathers.

Benefits all round

The NHS regularly reaches first place in the poll of what Britons are most proud of – and rightly so. It is on its way to providing patients with digital services, especially following the launch of its first app last July. Nevertheless, there is always time to look to our European and transatlantic neighbours for measures to implement. As demonstrated there, mainframes are not a barrier to digital advancement. It is possible for the NHS to offer digital services without having to rip out any of its existing technology – and more integrated technology means a more cost-effective and more efficient service for everyone.

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