It’s now a little over a decade since Steve Jobs stepped confidently onto a stage in California and projected the world into the smartphone era. Ever since, there’s been no shortage of debate about the implications of our ever more connected, always-on digital lifestyles.
Technology now governs every aspect of our lives: how we shop, how we work, how we play, even how we vote, have all been transformed by the march of digital. It’s brought risk, as well as benefits, not least in its impact on our mental health.
But what can’t be disputed is its overwhelming power to disrupt traditional ways of working and create new possibilities for consumers.
In healthcare, the pace has been slightly slower but the direction just as clear – from the Royal Liverpool using sophisticated sensors to provide 24/7 observation to cardiac arrests, to Imperial in London using automation to undertake remote measurements in its maternity wards, you will find tomorrow’s technology happening today.
Yet while the more eye-catching and extraordinary world of artificial intelligence, robotics and genomic medicine tends to grab the headlines, we should not ignore the quieter and equally transformative opportunity that technology gives us: namely, to open up the NHS to scrutiny and use technology as a democratic force within our public services.
By digitising, sharing and democratising healthcare information and advice, we can deliver the same sort of transfer of power and control to the individual that we’ve seen in the media and across popular culture.
And arming people with the right information to self-care, self-determine and intelligently self-select their healthcare options according to personal needs is the best way we can protect against the fear – most recently expressed by the brilliant Martha Lane Fox – that technology may widen health inequality within our society.
But what does this mean in practice?
Let me give you just three examples of the digital standards I want the NHS to reach by the end of it 70th anniversary year in 2018, and also why they matter.
The first is establishing universal access to some core digital services. Every NHS patient should be able to access their individual medical record, book an appointment and get their repeat prescription online as standard by the end of June 2018.
It should also be possible for people to book appointments for their GP online, rather than attempt to call through to busy surgeries – a practice that many will find anachronistic and baffling given how digital is used in other sectors, such as banking and retail.
But this is about more than just convenience – evidence shows that giving people the ability to book online reduces missed appointments, something that costs the NHS millions a year. If we could get around a quarter of appointments booked online rather than by phone, it is estimated that this could bring around £31million worth of benefits to GP practices.
The second big agenda is around improving direct and round-the-clock access to healthcare advice online, specifically by extending the 111 advice service online.
While digital is not going to be the answer for every individual or every circumstance, there is surely more we can do to use technology as a way of extending access to high quality and trusted NHS advice.
It’s particularly important that we use technology to support people with long term, chronic conditions. A simple example is MyCOPD, a website that helps people with lung disease to monitor their symptoms and adjust their medication dose.
COPD is a complex condition, accounting for more than 120,000 hospital admissions every year – each costing around £1,500. So if we can use technology to empower and support people to monitor their condition and spot early signs of deterioration, we can potentially transform people’s health and also save the NHS millions.
And finally, I want to build up the MyNHS service that I set up three years ago. This brings together data from across the health and care sector, and is part of a plan to create the most open, transparent healthcare system in the world.
By opening up a further 90 clinical datasets, we will make it easier for the public to compare performance across more parts of the NHS, giving the patients and professionals more insight and information about local services and providing the healthcare system with the raw data to compare and improve.
Transparency and patient power can be a more powerful defender of the NHS core values than any politician. Being able to compare performance across healthcare services can be the invisible force that drives up standards everywhere and for all.
So there you have it: three big agendas I want to progress in the NHS’s 70th year. And what better way to mark its anniversary than securing its place in our modern society and rooting our healthcare services firmly in the digital age?
Jeremy Hunt is the Secretary of State for Health
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