Why the UK’s National Health Service is moving towards ‘digital-first’

By Dr Ben Maruthappu

Dr Ben Maruthappu, co-founder of the NHS Innovation Accelerator, shares how digital and simulation technology are shaping the future of medicine.

Image: The National Health Service. 

Singapore and the UK have different healthcare approaches however they have many similar challenges. Both nations have large ageing populations with complex long-term conditions, and, coupled with other population pressures, these healthcare systems, like many across the world, are looking for solutions. Technology is critical to developing and transforming healthcare to meet these needs, while also ensuring that quality healthcare provision remains paramount.

In the UK, the government has set a clear vision for the use of technology, digital and data within health and social care, to enable the NHS and social care systems to improve outcomes. The UK is home to some of the world’s leading health technology companies, already bringing innovation to clinical care, research and training.

Earlier this year, Noel Gordon, Chairman of Healthcare UK and NHS Digital, visited Singapore to share how the UK healthcare sector is embracing a digital transformation which is supporting population health management.

Both nations recognise the importance of technology to the healthcare sector and following his visit British and Singaporean companies have continued to work together to address shared challenges. In April, Fullerton Healthcare, an integrated health system in Asia Pacific, and UK headquartered iamYiam, a healthcare platform leveraging scientific research and artificial intelligence (AI) technology, announced a strategic partnership to jointly address preventative lifestyle conditions and improve the quality of life for people across Asia Pacific.

Across the world prevention is one of the key objectives for healthcare systems and technology has a significant role to play in this. In the NHS, where 10% of the entire system budget is currently spent on type 2 diabetes – a largely preventable condition - the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme is tackling this challenge by making use of apps that support healthier lifestyles and behaviour change. AI and social networking are being used to tailor solutions to specific needs and provide support for people as they embark on lifestyle changes.

Digital advances are changing the face of ‘everyday’ healthcare, and simulation software, virtual reality (VR), AI and interactive gaming are being used to transform patient care by improving education and training.

Simulation technology offers students and medical professionals’ realistic, practical and hands-on experience in an immersive environment where they can practice procedures, perfect skills, collaborate and enhance knowledge and understanding.

The benefits this new technology can deliver to education, training and patient care are significant. In 2016, Professor Shafi Ahmed, a cancer surgeon at Barts Health NHS Trust, performed a world first when a surgical operation was streamed live in 360-degree video and made accessible to medical students and trainee surgeons using a smartphone and VR headset. During the procedure students were also able to ask questions which the lead surgeon could respond to in real-time.

Professor Ahmed has subsequently gone on to lead on surgical operations with colleagues around the world participating by using VR technology so that during the procedures the experience is almost the same as being in the same operating theatre.

The UK has also developed world leading healthcare simulation expertise with a number of healthcare simulation centres including the Bristol Medical Simulation Centre and similar facilities at Coventry University and King’s College London. In Singapore companies including SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Medical Simulation are exploring the immense benefits of healthcare simulation and ‘serious games’ which use technology for both medical education, training and health promotion.

The opportunities for collaboration across global markets are huge and the ‘digital first’ approach is facilitating scalable, accessible and sustainable healthcare solutions. Pioneering governments are already moving towards creating systems that can deliver improved health outcomes at a lower cost, with greater convenience and a better experience for patients.

Dr Ben Maruthappu is co-founder of the NHS Innovation Accelerator and a leading physician, entrepreneur and technologist.

Launched in July 2015, the NHS Innovation Accelerator is an award-winning national accelerator supporting dedicated individuals to scale their high impact, evidence-based innovations across the NHS and wider healthcare system.