The NHS: from fax machines to machine learning

Anybody would be forgiven for thinking the title of this blog refers to the evolution of the NHS over the course of its 70-year life. It was certainly my interpretation when I first read it, but it actually reflects the span of the healthcare system today. Implementation of the newest technology has always been strived for in the NHS, the most recent gesture being Matt Hancock’s grand £487 million boost to make it ‘the most advanced health system in the world’. But despite considerable efforts, stubbornness prevails, and the NHS remains the single largest buyer of fax machines internationally. This fact was the crux of an anecdote shared at the King’s Fund’s’ Health and care explained’ conference held in March, during a session that predicted the fate of the NHS in 2018. Half a year later, how accurate are these predictions looking?

Of the three main claims, perhaps the most likely was that more services will be paperless by the end of the year. They were clever not to quantify this (though I wouldn’t have the time and resources to verify it anyway), but I’d say they were correct, judging by the changing services around me. That said, I doubt we are anywhere close to the target of the ‘paper-free NHS by 2020’ pledged as part of the NHS Five Year Forward View updated in 2017.

The next prediction was that an NHS app for patients would be available, regardless of intended purpose and actual usefulness. If recent timelines are to be believed, this will also be correct, as it was recently announced that a free app will be made available to everyone in England in December 2018. The new NHS app will provide secure access to GP records, allow patients to make GP appointments, and order repeat prescriptions among other functions.

Finally, and most ambitiously, it was believed that artificial intelligence will be in practice in the NHS to aid diagnostic decision-making. A report published in April by the House of Lords titled AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? made a case for its use and emphasised the beneficial impact it would have on patient care and research. However, execution of such technology seems unlikely anytime soon. Concerns regarding collaboration with AI developers has resulted in a call for NHS England and National Data Guardian for Health and Care to publish a framework for the consistent approach in data-sharing by the end of 2018 before any significant progress is made.

While time is still yet to tell exactly how accurate these foresights of the NHS are, the rest of the day provided a good grasp on how it currently operates. I greatly benefited from the knowledge shared during the other main session of the day, ‘How does the healthcare system work?’ When I attended the conference, I was a recent graduate with only a few months’ experience in the medical communications industry. The experience I did have was within very specific branches of healthcare, where it is easy to get bogged down in fine details without realising the context of the vast system it sits within. The session proved to be a quick solution to this as a crash course in the NHS – how it is structured, how decisions are made, who is responsible, what challenges it currently faces, and a flavour of what’s to come.

I know I wasn’t alone in recognising the value of the day. The event, originally intended as a one-off, was so successful that the King’s Fund has turned it into a ‘Health and care explained’ series and the next event will be held on Wednesday 8th August 2018.

You can check it out here: www.kingsfund.org.uk/events/health-and-care-explained-2

Lirazel Swindells, Account Associate