19 January 2022

The NHS is broken – health tech can help fix it

By Camilla de Coverly Veale

The NHS hit a new and grim milestone in December – 6 million patients waiting for routine procedures. Covid cannonballed into the health service, bringing into sharp relief its creaking infrastructure, growing backlog and ‘winter crisis’ that is now an annual routine.

But the pandemic has also shown how the NHS can benefit from technology that can quickly scale: one startup, Eva, saves the NHS 1100 hours of admin time each month by making its vaccinations programme more efficient. It’s also managed this from a standing start and while being praised for its ease of use, in contrast to the incumbent IT system which was awarded in a no-bid tender.

A tech-orientated NHS is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s vital to the sustainability of the system. And even if there wasn’t a pandemic-sized hole to patch up, the UK’s rapidly aging population means there’s no time to stand still.

The NHS has not always had the easiest relationship with tech. The early Noughties saw clunking IT failures that collapsed into multi-billion pound procurement disasters and the service still has a problem with vulnerable legacy systems which still underpin its tech infrastructure.

This is not to say, however, that the service doesn’t encourage tech innovation. It does, but these are too often held in restrictive silos, unable to scale across the service. This means only some patients are benefiting from innovations, such as AI diagnoses which are quicker, more accurate and, most importantly, ensure doctors can rapidly identify the patients most in need of treatment.

Health tech companies need the NHS to help them help it. Startups complain the NHS is difficult to navigate – but among the biggest bugbears are barriers to interoperability, particularly when it comes to data. In our engagement with health startups we have heard some truly shocking practices, including doctors being so frustrated with their inability to share data quickly enough that they resorted to WhatsApp. Improving data sharing would mean better and expanded care, higher productivity and, ultimately, a reduced backlog.

Health tech startups have other run-of-the-mill procurement issues too. And from our perspective it seems that too often the Government seems focused on reforming procurement everywhere except in the health service – even though NHS spending makes up the bulk of any public procurement pie chart. This often leaves startups hoping to sell into the NHS at the mercy of managers who enjoy personal fiefdoms. The Government has the clout to improve the situation for startups.

The benefits for the health service from enabling tech startups to scale could not be clearer: better patient outcomes, a backlog cleared more quickly and less strain on doctors and nurses who want to care for people in need, not waste time putting data into spreadsheets.

Recently the Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, said a Labour government would be prepared to  ‘use private sector capacity to bring down NHS waiting lists’ if it meant getting patients ‘better health outcomes’. Though Streeting might have been thinking of private care, the best way to harness private sector capacity is by working more closely with tech businesses – something the Government ought to be well aware of.

Covid-19 has scarred the economy, society and healthcare. But hopefully, one of its lasting legacies will be catalysing the NHS to embrace transformational technologies wholesale.

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Camilla de Coverly Veale is Head of Regulation at Coadec.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.