Championing the best of the NHS and health spending as an investment: how to futureproof our health service

Barbara Harpham, chair of the Medical Technology Group explains how medical technology can help clear the backlog

At a time of crisis for the health service, the MTG’s flagship event Medical Technology Awareness Week may have been our most important yet. This year’s theme ‘Futureproofing the NHS’ brought together MPs, NHS leaders, industry groups and patients to showcase the best of NHS innovation in tackling the backlog, improving the quality of care and relieving pressure on the workforce. It was a milestone in our ongoing campaign to make the case for medical technology as the solution to many of the NHS’s future challenges.

Medical technology as a priority
We have long believed that uptake of medical technology must be a priority if the health service is to face these challenges. In recent years, there has been some improvement with the MedTech Funding Mandate and a greater drive by the NHS Innovation Accelerator to adopt the right technology. But as our series of reports on regional inequality in the NHS show, there is still a long way to go in ensuring timely and equitable access to the best medical technology and innovation on the NHS for every patient.
    
For Government, NHS leaders and even local NHS bodies, the need to embrace medical technology as the solution is becoming more urgent by the day. There are challenges that sit clearly on the horizon: an ageing population, a backlog that predates the pandemic, as well as the need to upgrade our diagnostic and surgical capacity. There is also a transition to a ‘population health’ model of care under the Integrated Care Systems, much of which rests upon the use of medical and data technology to assist prevention and management of chronic illness long term in the community.
    
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, many regions of the NHS have relied on innovation and medical technology to cope with the unprecedented pressure on health services. The sorts of same day surgery techniques we highlighted in our manifesto can now be widely found in surgical hubs across the country. In our latest report, we showcased those regions that had used examples of innovation and technology to recover from the pandemic. The variety of our case studies reflect both innovation in leadership and management structures, but also the effective use of data and medical technology. Broadly, their positive impact can be broken down into three key areas: managing long-term conditions; improving surgery times and patient experience; and supporting the NHS in its workforce challenges.

Technology in use
In NHS Wakefield, now part of the West Yorkshire ICS, using SystmOne software the hospital set up a ‘Shared Referral Pathway’, allowing clinicians to communicate with each other between primary and secondary care as the patients moved through the pathway. As the chief executive of the Hospital Trust, Len Hutton, said, this was not an overnight transition but ‘two years of trial and tribulation’. In fact, the theme of longer-term transition emerged from other case studies, and highlights the important role hospital executives have in facilitating the effective uptake of innovation. When we talk of ‘futureproofing’, the NHS, there is no magic wand to wave with regards to a piece of technology that will. Rather it’s dependent on how the leadership teams deploy such technology, one which requires them to occasionally make bold, often brave decisions.
    
One significant example of this was the work done in NHS Northumbria under the stewardship of Sir James Mackay. The utilisation of data, particularly the effective development of live dashboards and information on the changing needs of the patient was crucial to the effective allocation of resources as the trust looked to recover from the pandemic. This use of data can also be seen in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, where a ‘mission control’ style room, used to allocate beds and staff, has seen them slash waiting times.

Clearing the backlog
Though the pandemic has been devastating for our health service, these examples of innovation forged through crisis now need to be the bedrock for the future vision of the NHS. There is also work for NICE, and other centralised NHS bodies to do in this respect. During our Medical Technology Awareness Week, we showcased a number of technologies that have contributed to clearing the backlog, particularly a variety of minimally invasive surgery techniques which have had successful records in reducing surgical times and patient stays in hospital. Continuing to invest in these minimally invasive procedures will allow the government to extend the use of surgical hubs and intensive surgery clinics. The use of this technology should therefore become not just a means to clear the backlog, but also increase the NHS’s surgical capacity, reduce hospital stays and prevent readmission.

Investment
The last point we made to NHS leaders and politicians gathered at our reception was one around health spending. To fully harness the benefits of medical technology and futureproof not just our NHS, but also our economy, we must increasingly see each pound spent on the health service as an investment in our economy. There are plenty of examples where long-term investment in medical technology assisted surgery sees improvements to our economy. Total Hip Replacement is a way of tackling the cost of osteoarthritis - which amounts to roughly one percent of Gross National Product (GNP) per year with 40 per cent of people with musculoskeletal disease of working age unable to work. The procedure sees 97 per cent of patients report improvements in their condition. With up to 2.5 million people economically inactive due to long-term sickness, futureproofing our health service also means investing in the NHS to ensure we return as many people as possible back to work and their normal lives.
    
Ensuring the NHS is sustainable is no easy task. It requires brave and bold decisions by local NHS leadership teams as well as a willingness to see the value of investment beyond short-term benefits to the health service. There is, however, a lot to be optimistic about. The pandemic has forced us to adopt innovation to overcome its challenges, and in doing so we now have working models of how to increase diagnostic capacity, improve patient outcomes and manage workforce pressures only in pockets of our NHS. Our Medtech Week is a chance to convince the Government, NHS England and local NHS bodies to increase the spread and uptake of innovation, and regard the investment in medical technology as a benefit both to the future of our health service and our economy.

Barbara Harpham is chair of the Medical Technology Group, a not-for-profit coalition of patient groups, research charities and medical device manufacturers working together to improve patient access to effective medical technologies.

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