Matt Roberts, Global Practice Lead for Healthcare at Juniper Networks, discusses how smart healthcare can be used to solve some of the issues facing the NHS.
For over 70 years, the National Health Service, or NHS, has been a crucial British institution providing healthcare that is free at the point of access. Since the NHS’ inception in 1948, the average male in the UK was predicted to live to his mid-60s whereas now average lifespan is over 80. The ageing population, along with their complex health needs are putting unprecedented levels of strain on the system.
As technology has improved, so has our ability to treat lifelong conditions. Alongside this, the overall cost of healthcare has gone up. Healthcare professionals are expected to provide the exceptional levels of service associated with the NHS with extremely limited resources.
These issues have also been exacerbated by the pandemic, staff shortages, and strikes. Across the country, there are vast regional differences in healthcare, particularly for rural communities which may be many miles from the nearest hospital. We all want to protect the NHS for future generations – but how?
The digital solution
Smart healthcare is increasingly being publicised as the next big thing in the medical space and could resolve many of the issues the NHS is currently facing. This branch of medical technology covers a wide range of innovations that can be implemented in various settings to ensure that healthcare is realised in the safest, most impactful way possible. However, all smart healthcare solutions are underpinned by connectivity which is what makes them truly ‘smart’.
To effectively deliver healthcare to a UK population of 67 million, cloud computing is a useful tool to give healthcare providers access to IT infrastructure as and when they need it. In such a huge organisation, this allows for the flexibility and scale to cope with the demands of the system. Cloud storage systems are also useful tools when dealing with patient records as this technology allows for analytics, insights, and sharing. Oversight of patient records can enable strategic decision-making across the country and regionally. When dealing with crucial patient data, IT teams should also opt for Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based security systems to ensure that hacking or leaks do not occur.
In terms of patient experiences, we are likely to see improvements to the NHS app to support them in becoming advocates for their own health. This will be part of a wider trend of digital healthcare becoming more interactive to guarantee better care for patients. Interactive systems will also promote efficiency in medical environments. In a hospital, rather than ringing a bell to directly request something from a nurse, we may be presented with screens to allow us to order what we need. This could allow patients to get the resources they require more quickly and can reduce back and forth for staff. Across the entire healthcare system, technology like this can quickly save hundreds or even thousands of hours for staff which can be better spent directly treating patients in need.
Hospitals, surgical centres, and other medical environments are also likely to be transformed into an Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) environment. This means that various elements of the facility will be connected to the internet, including medical devices. Analytics from these machines can give staff insights into how the facility is working and can guarantee that it is optimised to enhance clinician and patient flow. Implementation of these analytics can also be used to ensure that medical environments are not wasting unnecessary energy and budgets.
Digital medicine is also likely to impact the way that patients are diagnosed, along with the rise of smart pills and wearable devices. These tools can be used for diagnosis and treatment, meaning that invasive investigations can be kept to a minimum. Patient’s health status can even be monitored remotely. Specialised devices can flag medical emergencies such as heart attacks in real-time, with 93-95% accuracy, which can lead sufferers to seek emergency medical care in a timely manner. When a condition is life-threatening, solutions like wearable devices can be lifesaving.
Another trend in this space is remote healthcare or telemedicine which allows patients to have virtual appointments and be treated by doctors, no matter their location. This can help to eliminate regional disparities and is particularly useful to remote communities with limited access to medical facilities. Telemedicine can also ensure that patients be referred to the necessary services in a timely fashion, which, in some cases means that illnesses such as cancer can be picked up before they can cause lasting damage to the patients.
To enable the ‘smart’ functions in a variety of healthcare settings, robust, AI-powered networking is crucial to ensure that devices and analytics are always on. When a patient is relying on devices such as life support to keep them alive, sustained connectivity is essential. Any blackouts or brownouts in terms of connectivity can cause unnecessary patient deaths.
The benefits of smart healthcare
- Cost: Although there is an initial cost associated with implementing digital transformation in healthcare, across the board, digital solutions quickly allow processes to be conducted in a more budget-efficient manner. By digitalising various elements of a healthcare setting, staff time can be saved by working more effectively and medical devices can be optimised to make sure they are not wasting energy. Even just through the 6,495 general practitioners (GP) services in England, these changes can quickly make a huge overall impact on the NHS’ spending. Better insights and analytics from cloud computing also mean that resources can be allocated more effectively, and results can be better measured. This allows finance decision-makers to plan budgets to reap the best rewards.
- Staff: Working in a more efficient manner also means that medical professionals waste less time and will ultimately feel more fulfilled when at work. This can ultimately help to keep doctors and nurses in their jobs for longer and help to fill the gaps in staffing across the healthcare system. In this regard, we have a long way to go as 9% of medical posts were predicted to be vacant in December 2022. More equal resource allocation and better systems management across regions and departments can also help to eliminate staff’s day-to-day frustrations. Smart healthcare services can even boost security for staff and patients with the use of location services. If certain patients are a risk to others, or if certain resources need to be protected, location tracking can mean that only certain individuals can open doors or staff can be alerted if a dangerous or life-threatening situation were to arise.
- Patients: Finally, and most importantly, digital medical solutions can improve patient care and satisfaction across the board. Apps, wearable devices, and telemedicine can break down barriers to healthcare by enhancing communication and collaboration. These obstacles may be geographical, personal (like fear of procedures), or even just a lack of convenience. Increased efficiency across the healthcare structure can lead to reduced waiting lists which ultimately means patients can be seen more quickly. These changes and anything else facilitating rapid patient care will likely lead to a reduction in preventable patient medical errors or deaths.
What’s next for digital healthcare?
With so much promise in the healthcare system, there could be impatience around implementing digital solutions. However, digital transformation requires investment to replace legacy IT systems and as the NHS is strapped for cash, this initial investment may be hard to make. Once legacy IT structures get to the point of needing to be replaced, this is when we are most likely to see digital transformation.
In an organisation so large and complex as the NHS, smart healthcare can fundamentally improve processes nationwide. When the healthcare system is under so much strain, anything to reduce this must be implemented as soon as feasibly possible.