Is technology the cure for the NHS’ winter crisis?

Alfonso Ferrandez, Chief Technology Officer at Doctorlink – the UK’s leading health and symptom assessment platform for the NHS – considers the importance of technology in shaping the future of the NHS. 

Plagued by increasing patient demand, budget restraints, staff shortages and an ageing population, the NHS is currently facing an unprecedented crisis, as the coldest winter predicted looms.  Already an early outbreak of flu and a spate of norovirus cases have placed yet more pressure on already overburdened services – with many months of winter still ahead. 

In fact, in recent weeks it has been reported that the healthcare system is short of 100,000 staff, with a 7,000 GP shortfall predicted within the next five years. Moreover, wait times in both urgent and general practice have reached record highs, whilst public satisfaction with services has reached a record low.

So, with over half of GPs already seeing a third more patients than their capacity dictates and with NHS staff working over one million hours of unpaid overtime a week, the question remains: How can we pull the NHS back from the verge?

From the development of vaccines and antibiotics to technologies that process scans and detect the early stages of diseases, innovations have been helping to improve patient care since the inception of the NHS. 

However, whilst the digital revolution has transformed the world we live in, the health sector has traditionally held back, resisting to move away from an analogue system in the information age. The process of healthcare digitisation is slow, with surgery receptions still fielding hundreds of calls every morning, while hospital ward clerks still shift enormous stacks of paperwork to process a simple patient transfer. 

Understandably, the idea of technology in this inherently human sector evokes mixed reactions from clinicians and patients alike. However, with researchers forecasting that the NHS could save up to £12.5 billion a year and a quarter of hospital doctors’ time if they invested in a comprehensive programme of automation, this is an unsustainable rhetoric. 

From triaging patients and diagnosing acute conditions to facilitating video consultations and providing in-depth population health data analysis, the capacity for AI technologies and algorithms to create efficiencies and remove frictions within the current system are substantial. 

Smart technologies with machine learning capabilities excel at analysing great quantities of data at a much faster pace, and with greater accuracy, than healthcare practitioners. As a result, significant amounts of work can now be done in days rather than weeks, for example, with AI being able to scan and assess an x-ray in just 33 milliseconds

This not only enables doctors to make real time, data-driven assessments, but the development of big data capture technologies, which are endorsed by rigorous clinical governance, also means that AI can now be used to predict, prevent or treat diseases, delivering a more comprehensive and proactive programme of care for patients. 

Moreover, developed algorithms are well equipped to identify trends, and therefore, recommend the best route of care for patients, many of whom could safely look after themselves at home. 

For example, general practices using digital services such as Doctorlink have been able to redirect 20 – 30% of patients away from primary care to a more appropriate service for their needs including pharmacy and physiotherapy. 

By re-routing patients away from their traditional instinct to head to their GP – or often A&E out of regular hours – and to the most appropriate form of care, technology can give back valuable consultation time to doctors to see those who need it most, and reduce patient waiting times, directing them to the right care more quickly. 

Between 2012 and 2017 the number of start-ups in the healthcare AI space across the world increased by 65 per cent. From offering a preventative role by giving patients an easy way to book routine appointments and vaccinations to accelerating drug discovery and delivery times, the capacity for AI technologies to reduce administrative demands and open up access to care for patients is vast. 

Despite this growing enthusiasm, developments in machine learning and AI are currently being used in a far more integrated manner across almost any other sectors than healthcare. 

With the NHS running 24/7, clinicians want evidence that the technology will be seamlessly introduced without causing further strains, whilst ensuring there is still a place for human healthcare practitioners in the digital age. 

Ultimately, technology is never going to replace the necessary human touch of doctors, however, with the capacity to complement the skills of medical staff and ease pressures on current resources, the importance of big data, cloud technologies and AI to the future of the NHS cannot be underestimated. 

With A&E waiting times the worst on record and GP vacancies remaining unfilled, the pace of digital innovation in the health service needs to increase now more than ever to ensure that the NHS can continue to attract the best talent and provide a system that can keep up with patient demand. 

About the Author

Alfonso Ferrandez is the Chief Technology Officer at Doctorlink. Doctorlink is the UK’s leading health and symptom assessment platform, providing 24/7 access to healthcare for over 10 million NHS patients. Currently Doctorlink is the only digital triage solution specifically designed to alleviate the burden on NHS primary care, covering more than 9 million patients across 1,350 GP Practices. 

Featured image: ©Victor-Moussa