Health concerns – there’s an app for that

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has announced plans to expand the use of digital technology in the NHS. Key to the expansion will be the establishment of twelve ‘global exemplars’ and twenty ‘national exemplars’; essentially NHS trusts which will be expected to identify and promote best practice in the digital health arena.

To help them achieve their aim the global exemplars will each receive funding of £10 million and will be paired with an international organisation of their choice with a view to building digital expertise and disseminating it across the NHS. National exemplars will each receive £5 million together with support from a new NHS digital Academy, helping them to improve the way in which digital technology is used across their organisation.

In a two-pronged approach, the Health Secretary also announced measures which would help patients to improve their own interaction with health services. Recognising the growing use of tablets and smartphones, measures will be taken to improve access to health information via these devices, including offering an online triage service which will be operated by and link into NHS 111 together with greater access to personal health records online.

In tandem with this the NHS will also launch a library of approved apps which are designed to inform and guide patient information and choice. This library will also include information in respect of wearable devices with the aim of ensuring that people select effective products which will enable them to monitor and improve their own health. Eventually the aim is that information from wearable devices will feed directly into patient health records, helping GPs and other health services to monitor and advise on ongoing health issues such as diabetes.

As part of his announcement the Health Secretary announced that within the next twelve months he would be launching a competition to develop a range of apps which would deliver more effective information and results than those which are currently available. Commenting on this competition Jeremy Hunt said “we think we need better apps than the ones that are available in the market. We don’t want to develop them ourselves but we want them to be developed by entrepreneurs who have the specialist knowledge and creativity to do this.”

Of course this is not the first technology initiative which has been launched in respect of the NHS and it is fair to say that previous attempts have resulted in mixed outcomes. However, the increasing pace of technological change has resulted in the gap between the ideal and the achievable becoming ever smaller, leading to ever greater potential for delivering health improvements through technology.

In fact, a recent report by PwC suggests that £4.4bn of improvements could be made in the NHS simply through better use of information and technology.  For example, even a couple of years ago the John Taylor Hospice near Birmingham found that by issuing clinicians with laptops, the time available for direct patient care was doubled; and similar reports have come out across the NHS from trusts which are prepared to invest in the short term  order to save in the long term.

But it is not just the NHS which can benefit from investing in technology.  Health professionals in every field from chiropractors to physiotherapists and occupational therapists could benefit from some of the ideas being trialled in the NHS.  Digitising patient records can save every health practice time and storage space, whilst simple measures such as automatic appointment reminders can help to reduce no-shows; thereby keeping a full and productive schedule. Add in practices such as online booking and automated card payment systems and health practices can soon find that time consuming and unnecessary administration time is reduced, thereby enabling greater one-to-one patient contact time.

The health service by its very nature has to be a people service but that does not mean that we shouldn’t make the best use of technology in order to boost people care.  As the head of NHS Digital, Andy Williams, said when he commented on Jeremy Hunt’s latest announcement “I believe we have only just begun to achieve the true transformational change and deliver the real benefits that digital technologies can bring to doctors, nurses, social workers, patients and the public.”