Access to healthcare is vital. This may sound obvious, but when we look at statistics the impact this can have is shocking. Life expectancy in the UK varies disproportionally from region to region – according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Across the country there is an 11-year difference between the highest and lowest life expectancy at birth for men, and nearly nine years for women.
This means that, on average, a person born in the North East will die around a decade before someone born in Westminster. Ostensibly, our health system grants the same rights to everyone, but there is clearly a gap in access to services that needs addressing. Having worked in this sector, I believe this can be done by harnessing technology, and that we have an opportunity to do so now.
Understanding health inequalities
There are many barriers to healthcare, including poor public transport infrastructure, physical access to health services, or high populations in low-income regions which stretch practitioners too thinly. Residents in these areas that receive a lesser quality of care can become disenfranchised with the NHS and even the idea of healthcare as a whole.
This is a pressing issue that must be addressed immediately. According to the NHS, as a country, we spend £4.8bn a year on A&E admissions from people with low incomes. This is not an efficient way of treating conditions, and A&E should be a last resort. Through careful design and the adoption of technology, we have a chance to reduce pressure and costs on our health service exponentially by providing sufficient services in the community for those people.
Avoiding technological vanity projects
When designing and improving healthcare systems, the needs of individuals and communities should take center-stage in service design procurement, otherwise the wrong services can end up being procured for the wrong people and we do more harm than good in the long run. This tends to happen when we see vanity projects implemented by businesses or individuals seeking to make an impact that reflects their own abilities or views instead of the requirements of people using healthcare services.
Those designing and implementing digital healthcare products must ensure they prioritize increased access to services for all in the coming years. We’ve seen a rapid rollout of new medical technology services throughout the pandemic, from telehealth to remote patient monitoring. In the early months, demand surged – we saw a near 2,000 percent increase in video conferencing hours at Visionable. It’s been heartening to see the positive impact technology can have on health equity.
When properly implemented, cutting-edge health technology has the opportunity to remove spatial barriers: it enables doctors to diagnose and treat patients from opposite ends of the country and it allows health professionals from all corners of the globe to consult and share research. It also empowers people to make their own wellbeing decisions, stimulated by ease of access to information and services.
For example, if we imagine a stroke consultant at one end of the UK with spare capacity and the ability to provide urgent care to a patient hundreds of miles away in an area where demand is high, we can create huge change to accessibility.
Technology also allows us to implement new infrastructure to improve treatments and support professionals – our Connected Ambulance makes use of 5G networks to offer live streaming of clinical-grade, high-resolution imaging, allowing paramedics to connect with specialists miles away and diagnose patients on the spot. This ‘See and treat’ model saves valuable time and mitigates impediments around things like physical distances, that invariably delay treatment times.
We know from both our own research and conversations with healthcare teams that there is a huge need for remote consultations across the UK’s whole healthcare network. What we’ve also learned from these professionals is that there are valid concerns around losing personal contact or access to physical services when rolling out digital alternatives. For this reason, it’s essential that patient needs are carefully considered when implementing digital healthcare networks. In taking this approach, we can create lasting systems change and avoid expensive technological vanity projects.
Working in lockstep with the NHS to create a sustainable solution
Experts believe that Covid-19 accelerated NHS IT adoption by about five years in the space of five weeks. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this was encouraging – but now it’s our job in the technology industries to ensure this continues at pace and in tandem with the ever-changing needs of the NHS.
Telehealth companies have the opportunity to lead the charge, plug digital gaps and help shape the future of healthcare systems that work equitably for all. Companies should work alongside the NHS from planning to implementation and beyond, onboarding healthcare practitioners and providing ongoing technological support to ensure long-term sustainability and continuous benefits.
Onus should not fall solely on the NHS to find and implement the right digital solutions, but be a responsibility shared with vendors, to develop processes that are compatible with pre-existing technology and local contexts.
Digital healthcare solutions are not a panacea, and work must be done first to bridge the existing digital gaps which perpetuate cycles of inequity in access and delivery of care. For this to work, we absolutely must design technology alongside the NHS and with the needs of the patient, for whom these services exist, at the heart of its creation.
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Lord Victor Adebowale, CBE