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Still going strong – 70 years of life-saving NHS technology, underpinned by IT

(Image credit: Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock)

When the National Health Service (NHS) was first established on July 5, 1948, it brought together all of the U.K.’s hospitals, doctors, nurses, opticians, and dentists to provide free medical services to the general public at the point of administration. 

Along with saving lives, one of the defining factors of NHS’s success has been its use of technology. In its early years, the NHS introduced the latest medical equipment to provide the best in patient care. Now, technology such as cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging in the NHS to supplement the knowledge and expertise of medical staff. This technology is becoming almost as mission critical as the medical devices themselves, but success in recognising its benefits requires simple, comprehensive monitoring and management—which may be useful to consider as the next focus for IT teams in the NHS.

While medical devices are more sophisticated than ever before, this is still just the infancy of what technology can achieve in healthcare. With 70 more years of success on the horizon for the NHS, it’s an exciting time to look at the future of IT services, and what is needed to help them succeed.

The Early Years and Medical Tech Advancement

Before we can look at the future of technology in healthcare, let’s take a step back and look how we got to this point. With the concept of the PC still in its very early infancy, the first few decades of the NHS centred around innovation in medical technology. Just a few examples include:

  • 1950’s (opens in new tab) – James D. Watson and Francis Crick revealed the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, thanks to the images produced by X-ray crystallography. 
  • 1960’s (opens in new tab) – The NHS carried out the first full hip replacement in 1962. 
  • 1970’s (opens in new tab) – Computed tomography (CT) scanners were first built in 1972. These scanners produce 3D images of the human body from multiple 2D X-rays. 
  • 1980’s (opens in new tab) – Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners were produced as a more effective way to examine soft tissue, leading to the introduction of mammograms in 1988. 

A New Generation of Medical Tech – IT 

After implementing all of this ground-breaking medical technology, and with the popularity and usability of PCs now on the rise, the NHS was then able to shift some of its attention to the potential of IT to support and deliver healthcare services to the public—resulting in the first steps of an “IT strategy” for healthcare.

  • 1990’s (opens in new tab) – When NHS Direct launched in 1998, it became one of the largest single e-health services in the world. The telephone advice service ran every day all year, before being eventually replaced by NHS 111.
  • 2000’s (opens in new tab) – In 2002, the National Programme for IT was launched to develop and implement modern IT infrastructure and systems for integration in all NHS organizations. The NHS Choices website was then launched in 2007.
  • 2010’s (opens in new tab) – The more recent NHS digital advances include My NHS and the introduction of NHS 111 Online—now smartphones, tablets, and laptops joined telephones and in-person appointments as ways that citizens could access healthcare.   

As the first point of contact between patient and physician, these services, particularly the newer online portals, needed to be always-on, and it’s the job of the IT infrastructure supporting the services to ensure that. At the same time, those ground-breaking medical devices from the 70s and 80s started to become “networked”—directly connected in to the NHS infrastructure. 

Looking to the Future

The population of England alone has risen by 17 million since the launch of the NHS, meaning that the service has had to scale rapidly to keep up with demand. Both medical and computer technology are advancing in sophistication and quantity worldwide, and the number of cyberthreats is continually rising. As a result, the potential for the intentional or unintentional compromising of devices and data, such as personal health records, is greater than ever. 

To help combat this, the NHS plans to implement more widely used technologies, including AI, to help continually provide world-class care to its patients. This aim is part of the Five Year Forward View (opens in new tab), which plans to integrate new tools and systems to improve a range of areas of care by 2019. However, we’re still at the early stages of this view—with a quarter (24%) of NHS trusts and CCGs revealing in a recent SolarWinds survey (opens in new tab) that they had only just started to develop a strategy.

After 70 years of outstanding heritage, the NHS has found itself with a complex structure of organisations, initiatives, and devices, all of which are mission critical, and all of which need to work together seamlessly. At the 70th anniversary of the NHS, this is now the next big technology challenge—finding a way to simply make this work. As more and more technology is implemented for examinations, diagnoses and treatments, the NHS will increasingly rely on monitoring systems to help manage the infrastructure that is supporting the life-saving capabilities. And not only is there more technology, but there is more data being produced and shared. At the same time, UK citizens are moving around the country in a way that simply wouldn’t have happened back in 1948. Today, a patient from Cornwall will, and should, expect to be able to visit a hospital in Inverness and have the doctor know their medical history and treatment requirements.    

To overcome these new challenges, the NHS could benefit from overseeing its network with a monitoring system that can detect and resolve performance issues easily, and deliver real-time views that enable users to track performance simply. At the moment, over half (58%) of the public sector (including the NHS) in the SolarWinds IT Trends Report (opens in new tab) felt that their IT systems were not performing optimally—suggesting that there is potential for huge improvements in getting all of the last 70 years of innovation to work together as part of a more cohesive IT environment. With successful monitoring, IT teams can keep these services online, reliably, to deliver 24/7 patient care.

Some NHS Trusts are at the forefront of this move—finding ways to couple strong patient-facing services with underlying architecture to support them. One such example is the work that United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust (opens in new tab) did to provide high levels of reliability across seven widely dispersed hospitals that could have up to 3,000 active users at any given time. The main priority for the Trust was ensuring the technology and applications that supported medical care and patient communication were always performing at optimal levels. In doing so, the medical technology was supported by tools that could provide visibility and insights into the networks supporting them.   

United Lincolnshire Hospital NHS Trust is a prime example of combining medical technology, customer services and the IT infrastructure and monitoring to support it all—without this last piece, it can be hard to realise the potential of all the technology. 

Who knows what technology the next 70 years of the NHS will bring, but there is no doubt that it will all be supported by well monitored and managed IT systems.

Paul Parker, Chief Technologist of federal and national government at SolarWinds (opens in new tab)

Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock 

Paul Parker is chief technologist – Federal and National Government at SolarWinds.