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Taking healthcare out of the hospital

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

It’s no secret that hospital resources are being squeezed. Faced with dilemmas such as COVID-19 and falling rates of average healthcare spending and a rapidly ageing population, the NHS has plenty of issues to address. Earlier this year, the British Medical Association (BMA) even warned that the situation had worsened to the extent that four in five hospitals rely on emergency surgical beds for routine patients to cope with demand.

In response, the NHS is looking to take more care away from hospitals. Not only does this alleviate the burden on hospitals, but also taking aspects of healthcare provision away from the hospital can give patients urgent care when and where it’s needed the most. It’s no surprise then that the government sees non-hospital care as a vital part of the NHS’ future.

Yet if transforming care in this way was straightforward, NHS trusts across the country would have already done it. The reality is that non-hospital care relies on an incredible amount of data legwork behind the scenes to make it work. Unless the NHS can ensure patient data is used correctly, securely, and is made available to applications that need it regardless of time or location, examples of innovative patient care away from the hospital will remain few and far between.

Ultra-personalised diabetes care

Moving aspects of healthcare provision away from hospitals involves much more than simply video calling a GP. Healthcare technology has progressed to the point where truly innovative services are available to provide urgent, lifesaving care.

Take BD, for example. The US medtech company is pioneering a digital solution for diabetic patients, aimed at providing them with optimised insulin treatment. For patients with type-2 diabetes, optimised treatment is usually a pipe dream. Not only is it remarkably difficult for patients to collect all of their data, doctors rarely have the time to review it and recommend treatment. BD launched a mobile patient app and clinician portal, relying on connected medical devices to automatically log real-time patient insulin level data. The patients’ app then provides customised alerts and recommendations, while the portal presents all of the data back to doctors for them to determine the best course of treatment.

Digital pitchside paramedics

Elsewhere, neurotechnology firm SyncThink has launched a programme to instantly detect the tell-tale signs of concussion and trauma for professionals ‘in the field’, such as athletes and soldiers. SyncThink embedded infrared cameras into a VR headset called ‘EYE-SYNC’ to track patient’s eye movements – often an indicator of brain injury that may otherwise be difficult to spot – before feeding the data back to a clinician’s tablet device for a real-time diagnosis. However, online connectivity isn’t guaranteed in environments such as sports stadiums where thousands of smartphones are competing for network access. As such, SyncThink relies on NoSQL data technology which is capable of effectively operating ‘offline’, running tests and analysing patterns immediately without the need to continually synchronise with a central server.

App-based healthcare delivery

Recognising that patients rely on smartphones as the first point of interaction with every provider, one Israeli healthcare giant has launched an app aimed at giving patients as much care as possible through their mobile devices, rather than through clinics or hospitals. The app allows patients’ family members and doctors to view the same interactive timeline of the patients’ care history, including previous hospital visits, medication history, and diagnoses. Users can book in-person appointments, communicate directly with doctors, and tailor their care preferences, without needing to come to hospital in person. For patients without easy access to hospitals and clinics, this level of access to healthcare could be lifesaving.

Getting the data house in order

While these examples all cover very different scenarios, they all share a reliance on data to make them work. This won’t come as a surprise; every innovative new technology we hear about has data at its heart. What links these examples is the way in which each company has been able to manage its data to meet demanding requirements.

Both SyncThink and BD, for example, rely on the ability to gather data at scale and synchronise with a cloud-based portal, and the ability to operate ‘offline’ for extended periods without losing functionality. This is a remarkably challenging data demand, considering that intensive data analysis is usually left to the ‘core’ of a network, rather than connected devices at the edge. Ultimately, this type of innovation rests on a NoSQL data architecture, capable of managing data so that those that need it can access it immediately and in a secure manner, regardless of the level of demand or where the data is located. Crucially, it must also be architected so that insights from it are available in real-time, not only once it’s been processed by a central server. For NHS trusts reliant on legacy IT systems storing important datasets disparately across the network, this will be a challenge.

The future of healthcare?

While getting a sophisticated data architecture in place won’t be easy, its importance goes beyond powering innovations such as those from SyncThink and BD. Patients are increasingly part of the ‘expectation economy’; the idea that all consumers are coming to expect the slick digital experiences they get from digital leaders to be replicated across every service they’re offered. For the NHS in particular, embracing the expectation economy will be crucial. The NHS can’t expect to cut costs by directing patients to digital services if the experience on offer is lacklustre; patients will simply opt for traditional care methods instead, and digital initiatives will struggle to deliver value.

This trend goes beyond healthcare. Across every industry, organisations that have existed for decades are having to transform themselves to fit within the expectation economy, while simultaneously ‘keeping the lights on’. Doing nothing isn’t an option, but neither is a complete overhaul of existing technologies that might cause issues such as an increased risk of downtime, which for the NHS could have serious implications for patient care.

The NHS should look for inspiration from those that have already started their digital journeys; decades-old companies such as Tesco, United Airlines and AXA, for example, which have all been compelled to transform by increased customer demand. These companies have all balanced the need to introduce digital innovations with their existing technologies, augmenting their existing capabilities with data technology that’s built to support more sophisticated offerings.

Of course, initiatives such as those from BD or SyncThink aren’t expected to single-handedly solve the substantial list of issues faced by the NHS. Yet naturally, there’s a huge demand for services that ease the strain on hospital resources while providing important care where it’s needed the most. As these examples show, it’s possible to completely transform the way that care is delivered; it’s over to the NHS to make this a reality.

Perry Krug, Director, Customer Success, Couchbase

Perry Krug
Perry Krug is a principal architect at Couchbase, heading up its strategic accounts programme. Couchbase is a leading NoSQL database company, with customers including eBay, GE, PayPal, Tesco and LinkedIn.