Can big data keep NHS healthcare free to all?

Big data, wearable tech, iPad usage in hospitals – these were all on the lips of leading figures in the NHS and IT industry at a conference this week, entitled "Leading the technology revolution".

The event was centred around a Volterra and EMC report that highlights the inefficiencies of the NHS and proposes innovative solutions to improve them. The report claims that data analytics and better use of information could improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery in the UK by up to 60 per cent, with the potential to save the NHS between £16.5 billion and £66 billion per year.

On the panel:

  • Tim Kelsey, national director for patients and information at NHS England
  • Phoebe Robinson, head of project development and performance management at Imperial College Health Partners
  • Jane Ramsey, chair of Cambridge University Hospitals
  • James Norman, healthcare business development director, EMC UK
  • Cathy Corrie, Reform senior researcher

Throughout the event, there were aphorisms aplenty. Phrases like "the conversation is changing" and "extraordinary industrial scientific opportunity" were thrust into the ears of the gathered audience of health and IT professionals. The prevailing mood was that now is a time of huge change for the NHS, and that we are experiencing a fundamental power shift from the hospital to the patient, thanks to the opportunities provided by big data and advanced mobile technology.

"At the end of next year, every citizen will have access to a GP record online," said Tim Kelsey, affirming that big data is the "most powerful raw material of our age."

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The report itself outlines how increased engagement with patients through digital means can convert the NHS from an "illness model" to a "wellness model". Aided by wearable tech and healthcare apps that provide heightened monitoring of users, the NHS now has the potential to offer a level of care that targets patients before they even show signs of illness.

The NHS is a lumbering (yet beautiful) beast though, and technological change will be no easy feat, as James Norman [pictured left], healthcare business development director, EMC UK, explained:Porthole Ad

"We've got to do something drastic now. Carrying on as we have done – incremental change – isn't going to cut it anymore."

"This internal market, created many years ago served to improve the quality and improve working practices, has now reached the point where we're duplicating services and practises because we no longer want to give up what we've done."

I quizzed him on the Wellness Model – why had this textbooky paradigm been at the centre of the report? We're well acquainted with doctors aiding our physical ailments, but occupational and spiritual problems are not something I'd come to my GP with.

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"It's about understanding the psychological barriers that affect patients and that stop them from seeking treatment."

"It's also about attacking some of the prejudices that you have in general society."

"Treatments can help. They don't have to be invasive. They can be lifestyle changes, they can be using your friends and family and using social media, for example to get support. You don't have to go it alone."

Big data is no "magic wand" that can provide free healthcare for all, he added. It can help though. It's at the heart of preventative care and can even help pharmaceutical companies to tailor drugs to the individual, meaning patients can be treated in a more effective manner.

"Tailored care puts the patient in the middle of their treatment, not a point in time," he said.

The report can be downloaded via the EMC website.