Health Secretary launches tech vision for post-COVID-19 NHS

Matt Hancock calls for continued innovation and adoption of technology to reduce need for face-to-face appointments

The NHS has embraced technology like never before as part of its response to coronavirus, and this transformation must continue, says Health Secretary, Matt Hancock

The pressure on the NHS from the coronavirus pandemic was likened to the impact of the Great Fire of London as Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, laid out his plans to ensure technology adoption within the healthcare sector continues after lockdown.

Speaking at the Royal College of Physicians about the future of healthcare, Hancock outlined seven ‘lessons to be learned’ in order to ensure that the widespread innovation witnessed across the NHS in recent months continues apace.

He said: “One night late at night, at a bakery in the City, a spark leapt out of an oven and ignited some nearby fuel.

“The year, of course, was 1666 and we all know what happened next.

“Once again we have been hit with a terrible shock - a small spark that quickly turned into a global crisis.

“Coronavirus has tested every single part of our infrastructure, giving us a new appreciation for what works and what doesn’t.

“And, once again, brilliant ingenious people have risen to the occasion.”

This agile approach to the development and adoption of new technology has allowed the NHS to reimagine what is possible, from healthcare consultations via video calls, to supporting X-ray diagnostics with machine learning algorithms

As well as valuing and supporting healthcare workers, tackling red tape and bureaucracy, embracing the private sector, and improving collaboration between NHS organisations and other providers; he said technology would be key moving forwards.

“Better tech means better healthcare,” he told the audience.

“We want to double down on the huge advances we’ve made in technology within NHS and social care.

“Because it’s not really about technology, it’s about people.

“It’s the child with cystic fibrosis who can have his lung capacity measured at home with a spirometer and an app instead of having to go to hospital, with all the risks that entails.

“It’s about the elderly care home resident, socially shielding for months, able to meet her new grandchild on an iPad.

“And it’s about the local GP, already time poor, not having to spend time donning and doffing PPE because she can do her care home check-in online.

“Before coronavirus, there was a view advanced by some people, would you believe it, which held that anyone over the age of 25 simply could not cope with anything other than a face-to-face to appointment.

Matt Hancock, the new Health Secretary, has voiced his intention to promote the use of innovative technology in order to improve NHS services

“Well all I can say is thank God we didn’t listen to the naysayers and that NHS Digital, NHSx and NHS teams right across the country, worked so hard on digital transformation.

“Imagine if we hadn’t put the investment into broadband infrastructure so 99% of surgeries could offer remote consultations, virtually overnight.

“Imagine if we hadn’t digitised prescriptions so people could get repeat prescriptions online.

“Or, imagine the massive pressure on NHS 111 at the peak of the pandemic if we hadn’t developed it also as an online service.

“This crisis has shown that patients and clinicians alike, not just the young, want to use technology.”

Today’s speech from the Health Secretary is a welcome acknowledgement of an inescapable reality: the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the NHS to modernise at a scale and pace previously thought impossible

And he provided the figures to support this.

He said that, in the four weeks leading up to 12 of April this year, 71% of routine GP consultations were delivered remotely, with about 26% face to face.

In the same period a year ago, this was reversed, with 71% face to face and 25% carried out remotely.

“The feedback from this transformation has been hugely positive,” he added.

“And especially valued by doctors in rural areas, who say how it could save long travel times for doctors and patients.

“So, from now on, all consultations should be teleconsultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to.”

This bold move would change the face of primary care moving forwards, and hopefully take the pressure off hospitals.

Hancock said: “If they are able to, patients should get in contact first via the web or by calling in advance. That way, care is easier to manage and the NHS can deliver a much-better service.

“Not only will it make life quicker and easier for patients, but will free up clinicians to concentrate on what really matters.”

This adoption of technology, particularly in primary care settings, has been widely welcomed by industry leaders.

The days when the NHS was slow to embrace new technology need to be left in the pre-pandemic world. Innovation has to become the order of the day

Flann Horgan, vice president of healthcare at NTT DATA UK, comments: “Today’s speech from the Health Secretary is a welcome acknowledgement of an inescapable reality: the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the NHS to modernise at a scale and pace previously thought impossible.

“IT has played a key role in supporting healthcare professionals throughout this crisis.

“Vital solutions have been rolled out in a matter of days or weeks – when, previously it would have taken years.

“And this agile approach to the development and adoption of new technology has allowed the NHS to reimagine what is possible, from healthcare consultations via video calls, to supporting X-ray diagnostics with machine learning algorithms.

“These innovations have improved the experience of patients, relatives and clinical staff alike.

“Most importantly, these solutions have been delivered at pace without compromising patient safety or the confidentiality of sensitive patient data.

“Even before COVID-19, the NHS was facing rising demand. Technology offers the opportunity to manage the patient journey more efficiently, reducing the burden on NHS resources, and with better outcomes for patients and healthcare professionals alike.

“The days when the NHS was slow to embrace new technology need to be left in the pre-pandemic world. Innovation has to become the order of the day.”

We all hope we’ll never experience a situation like this again – but there is so much we can learn from it to create the health spaces of the future

But this will mean creating the right infrastructure to embed new technologies, warns Jonathan Murphy, chief executive of Assura.

The property expert recently carried out a survey in collaboration with YouGov, looking at how healthcare professionals felt their buildings had coped with the pressures of lockdown.

And the results showed that more than a quarter (27%) said healthcare buildings ‘didn’t work well’ for the services they have provided in the last three months.

And both face-to-face consulting rooms and smaller remote consulting spaces were pro-actively called for by 52% of respondents.

Commenting on the findings in light of Hancock’s speech, Murphy told BBH: “This unprecedented crisis has shone a spotlight on the pivotal role of primary care in helping to reduce pressure on Britain’s health service.

“For a number of years now, we have been working on what we see as the medical centre design of the future – exploring how the physical design and layout will work alongside primary care’s growing use of digital technology, remote consultation and diagnostics.

“The last three months have showed us just how much more there is to do – shining a light like never before on the flexibility and innovation needed to create the right environments for the care we’ll need in our communities in future.

“This includes embedding greater use of digital technology in primary care and to give healthcare professionals the workplaces they want to see.

“Clearly, we all hope we’ll never experience a situation like this again – but there is so much we can learn from it to create the health spaces of the future.”

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