Technology, combined with big-hearted community engagement, writes the right prescription for the NHS

May 4, 2016

It has been argued that there is no more important job in Britain than that of the family doctor. However, a recent international survey revealed British GPs are under far greater pressure than their overseas counterparts, with rising workloads matched by growing patient concerns about convenient access.

Slow to adopt

Technology, or perhaps the dearth of technology, has so far failed to play a leading role in supporting our beleaguered GPs, something which is not entirely the fault of Big Government. The truth of the matter is that some GPs are just not adopters of technology, and fail to see the advantages that innovation can deliver.

And indeed technology can play a very important role in transforming and improving the effectiveness of frontline services. Reading Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman’s article in Politics Home (The NHS can be a global pioneer for new technology, July 9th 2015) one can feel both excited and relieved. Relieved because although the idea of innovative technology channelled through the flag bearer of Britain’s welfare state was not a new idea, we can begin to see for the first time the enormous possibilities technology offers to the NHS. In short, technology might well represent potential salvation for the NHS.

Good news … at last

Excited? Well, after decades – yes decades – of negative press stories about how close the NHS is to dying one is able to conjoin the words, ‘positive’ and ‘NHS’.

Freeman describes how the NHS has approached “innovators across the world” to partner with local systems in trialling new technologies and digital services. “For example, this could mean equipping patients with wearable technology that, combined with new patterns of working for clinical and nursing staff, would help patients manage long-term conditions, such as diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, addressing any potential problems as early as possible, and help keep patients out of hospital.”

Rightly, Freeman sees the potential new technology has to benefit the standard of care offered by the NHS. I think, though, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course all we’d love to see the NHS become the showcase for new technologies and the best levels of care in the world, but there is a much larger story at play here. Funding the NHS, or rather the huge challenge of funding the NHS, offers a bigger potential opportunity for this scheme.

The project appears to be extremely well thought through and organised which suggests to me the makings of a very potent and effective form of public-private partnership enterprise. Working in partnership with 15 Academic Health Science Networks the programme will identify around five ‘test beds’ that will cut across a combination of GPs, hospitals, community health, social care and the voluntary sector. This level of granularity – GPs and social care no less – presents an opportunity to generate incredible levels of positive exposure for new technologies. Surely such a programme can be only a step away from becoming a fully fledged business, which might one day become a platform for both large-scale innovation for the international healthcare market, while even offering retail opportunities for more modest technologies used in the home.

Back to the future

This, then, is all very exciting – an unreservedly good news story – in all likelihood, the most positive the service has had to tell in years. We should all wish the programme well and hope that it becomes a bankrolling mechanism for Britain’s biggest and best government service.

The importance of people power

Of course real change, real improvement and genuine innovation can only be brought about by ordinary people, the men and women – the patients – who benefit from and support the NHS.

It was a privilege to recently attend a Lambeth Patient Participation Group (PPG) Network event in Brixton. It was an opportunity to showcase a new campaign which has been created to grow awareness of online services and to promote the benefits of booking GP consultations online within the Borough of Lambeth.

Practice Managers in Lambeth are faced with a daily round of growing demands on their time and services, while having to deal with shrinking resources. To gain a better understanding of these challenges, a typical day at a Lambeth practice reveals something like 300 phone calls made by patients before 9.30am, of which only one third are dealt with, with the remainder either left unanswered, or patients are confronted with a busy signal. If, however, the number of patients using the online system – Patient Access – could be raised to 50%, or above (currently only 3% of patients in the Borough use the service), it would free a significant amount of valuable time for GPs and administrative staff. Community outreach programmes for the homeless, schools and the elderly would all stand to benefit.

It’s a powerful message which is starting to gain traction. At last night’s event in Brixton, which attracted around 50 good-hearted, community-minded folk who were all regular supporters of their local PPG, an air of positive goodwill abided. It was an opportunity to air the videos, the PR campaigns, the newsletters which will bring to vivid life the importance and value of using online services, especially the online booking system.

At the end of the screening of the promotional video, which will start to play across Lambeth clinics from early next month, a loud round of applause was heard from the assembled PPG attendees.

People power in action!