Integration of technology and increased digitalization is key to curbing the UK’s National Health Service crisis
Imran Rahman | | 4 min read | Discussion
The crisis facing the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) cannot be pinned down to a single cause. Staffing shortages, relative underfunding, and a significant backlog that has been exacerbated by the pandemic have all contributed to the NHS’s current state. There are over seven million people waiting for hospital treatment with the NHS in England, a record number that is not expected to fall for the next 18 months (1). At the same time, healthcare job vacancies are also at near-record levels (2).
Although there is no single, simple solution to revitalize the NHS, growing digitalization in the sector is key to improving care for patients, and will be essential to rebuilding the future of the NHS on a sustainable basis.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns limiting access to healthcare for patients, like many sectors at the time, healthcare was forced to adapt. The NHS saw rapid digitalization, with more than 28 million people in the UK using the NHS App by June 2022 (3) – a nearly six-fold increase from the same point the year prior. The UK government has not stopped there however, setting a goal of 75 percent of adults to be using the app by March 2024 (4).
The benefits of digitalization are numerous. As was demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, digital systems can improve access to healthcare services – particularly for patients in rural or remote areas. Virtual consultations and remote monitoring enabled patients to access care from the comfort of their own homes. With 31 percent of adults having increased difficulty in accessing care during the pandemic (5), the move to digital health was empowering for patients who were not able or reluctant to travel to clinics and those who had trouble making appointments. Although there are some issues that may need to be surmounted, including maintaining quality of care, reducing relational issues, and ensuring care continuity (6), such logistical considerations are not unique to the prospect of increased digitalization of the healthcare sector and do not negate the increased accessibility offered to patients.
Digitalization doesn’t only have the scope to benefit patients, but can also help streamline processes, saving time for healthcare providers by helping them to work more efficiently. For example, digital health records offer real-time access to patient information, reducing the need for manual data entry and allowing providers to readily make more informed decisions. Furthermore, the rise of big data is helping health services improve. Digital systems can help healthcare providers gather and analyze data more efficiently, enabling them to identify patterns and trends in patient health and develop more effective treatment plans.
Predictive technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), can not only support research and innovation in healthcare, but also help make more accurate diagnoses and improve tailored care to patients.
The ability of AI to analyze medical images, as well as patterns and trends in medical records, allows doctors to identify any potential health risks or abnormalities quicker and earlier. Detecting signs of conditions, such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration, at an earlier stage than would otherwise be possible allows for earlier treatment and an increased chance of preventing further degeneration.
Ophthalmic treatment accounted for approximately 10 percent of the NHS waiting lists in 2022 (7). Patients waited an average of nine months for cataract surgery (8) and, in some cases, up to two years (9) – far longer than the NHS recommended waiting time of 18 weeks. AI enables the triaging of patients based on the severity of their eye condition and the prioritization of care for those who require urgent treatment.
Finally, AI-powered telemedicine systems can also increase the accessibility of healthcare for patients, providing remote consultations and diagnoses for patients who may not be able to travel to specialist clinics.
Though digitalization is on the right track, the NHS still faces other hurdles. The £2 billion of funding promised by Sajid Javid – the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at the time, on top of the £150 million put towards digital adoption in the NHS last summer has now fallen to less than £1 billion – and this is a serious concern (10).
That said, much of the technology that can make significant improvements to the healthcare sector has already been developed and is readily available. For example, CHECs patient booking app was designed to allow patients to manage and book their appointments online, improving accessibility and efficiency, all with the aim of reducing cancellations and missed appointments.
The app is able to determine the urgency of an appointment, and allow patients to choose the most convenient time slot, speeding up a procedure that frequently takes weeks.
Improving the use of technology in healthcare will help providers, including the NHS, modernize and save money by eliminating inefficiencies and reducing the need for paper-based processes. The future is in our hands – and it will bring about healthcare that is more accessible, efficient, and personalized than it is today.
- Institute for Fiscal Studies, “One year on from the backlog recovery plan: what’s next for NHS waiting lists?” (2023). Available at: https://bit.ly/3J6XfKc
- Office for National Statistics, “Labour demand volumes by profession and local authority, UK: January 2017 to December 2022” (2023). Available at: http://bit.ly/3kPQdQH
- GOV.UK, “Digital revolution to bust COVID backlogs and deliver more tailored care for patients” (2022). Available at: http://bit.ly/3F4jfml
- GOV.UK “A plan for digital health and social care” (2022). Available at: http://bit.ly/3Jjkkcz
- G Iacobucci, “Pandemic has accelerated demand for private healthcare, report finds,” BMJ, 376, o566 (2022). PMID: 35241427.
- F Mold et al., “COVID-10 and beyond: virtual consultations in primary care – reflecting on the evidence base for implementation and ensuring reach: commentary article,” BMJ Health Care Inform, 28, e100256 (2021). PMID: 33436372.
- The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, “Public Accounts Committee inquiry – Managing NHS backlogs & waiting times” (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3yfLTx6
- NHS England, “Consultant-led Referral to Treatment Waiting Times Data 2020-21” (2021). Available at: http://bit.ly/3yfdSwS
- Daily Record, “92-week wait for NHS eye op as elderly cataract patients forced to get private surgery” (2022). Available at: http://bit.ly/3ZJhPWu
- Health Service Journal, “NHS tech funding falls to less than £1bn” (2023). Available at: http://bit.ly/3mqTGp7