Did you know that the NHS is the world’s fifth largest employer? It’s an operation with so many people and layers of complexity that it occupies one in 20 British workers. It’s quite incredible really, especially when you consider that it comes in ahead of the likes of e-com giant Amazon and German-gone-global car manufacturer Volkswagen, among others. And yet, despite its size, vital role in society and the fact that more than 1.5 million people are working for it nationwide, the NHS continues to fall significantly behind when it comes to the supposed technological revolution that’s meant to be transforming healthcare provision.
I recently became slightly fascinated by this and the general state of the NHS — especially in the context of technology and data. There are a couple of reasons why…
First one is that we recently worked on a piece of new business that was all about integration — and I’m talking full-scale integration used by huge enterprises that need to integrate on-prem applications and data with cloud applications and data. Naturally, in our extensive research, we realised the power this could hold for the NHS… Imagine a healthcare system where all the different GP practices, primary care trusts and everything in between were seamlessly connected to provide patients with much higher quality and more convenient care, while also driving better decision making, identification of trends and patterns, and ultimately giving us a chance to predict future events and outcomes.
For example, exploiting the boom in AI technology in the NHS could render up to 30 million outpatient appointments currently taking place unnecessary, saving over £1bn to be reinvested elsewhere. And if you remain sceptical, there are proof cases already — an AI system trialled at Moorfields Eye Hospital in North London found that it made the correct referral decision for over 50 eye diseases with 94% accuracy, matching the world’s best eye experts. Obviously, that’s amazing, but I understand we need to take it with a pinch of salt — relatively speaking the eye and associated diseases are much clearer cut to determine a good course of action over other much more complex illnesses. But it’s a great case study all the same to showcase the power of AI in healthcare.
The second reason why my interest continues to be piqued is because of the impact it can have on real people — families, partners, friends… everyone really. Think about a disease like Alzheimer’s. It changes the world for the families and close ones involved when symptoms start setting in, but with the dawn of technology and its practical use in the NHS, we could be on the road to better treatment and care thanks to predictive analytics. For instance, early symptoms — such as memory impairment — are often brushed off as tiredness or ‘just not being with it today’. That means that they may not be apparent in primary care visits or routine checks, unless directly addressed and brought up by the patient. But that latter point is a stretch, trust me.
Machine learning on the other hand has the power to start changing the typical (late) diagnosis cycle, i.e. when you can no longer ignore the symptoms because they’re taking over your life. Advanced predictive analytics in machine learning can perform retrospective and prospective analysis of data across a wealth of an individual’s records, including clinical data in existing medical records, financial data and changing behaviours, demographic data from population health records (spanning areas like pharmaceutical, environmental or clinical variables related to the onset of dementia), and beyond. Now, when we’re talking about real-life impact, an earlier diagnosis would have transformed things for my family — my dad has Alzheimer’s and you’d be surprised how obsessed you become by tech in the NHS when you hear about the potential it has to change the lifecycle of diagnosis, and ultimately lives.
In reality, although machine learning and AI are quite a long way off in terms of every day usage and impact in the NHS, there’s so much technological change sweeping the UK’s healthcare industry that there’s plenty to be excited about. We Brits love to complain about anything and everything — especially queues and ‘computer says no’ moments in our GP surgeries. But we’ve already come along way. It’s not long been possible to make and cancel appointments online. Equally, we’re starting well with the next generation now that parents are able to access their children’s health record through an online ‘red book’.
And as with any tech revolution or industry digitisation, there’s always an influx of hackers posing new threats to hinder progress. The latest reported with the NHS — which actually prompted me to consider writing this piece — details how hackers could invade NHS systems and maliciously edit medical scans to ‘fake’ or hide cancer. I mean, needless to say — disgusting. But we’re all aware of these scams, like the WannaCry scandal from a couple of years ago. They’re arguably all a result of lack of proper technology funding in the NHS to cover areas like cybersecurity, but we can’t let these stumbling blocks get in the way. Yes, we must address new challenges as they arise, but equally there’s a big piece of education that needs to be done on all of these areas to continue opening minds to new possibilities when it comes to healthcare provision.