Looking to the future: NHS and technology
An embryo being inserted with sperm via IVF.

As a funding boost has been promised for the NHS to improve their technology, we take a look at how far the service has come since its creation.

The NHS has recently promised a host of new technology to boost the nation’s health service.    As part of the Budget back in March, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced £3.4 billion  of funding for NHS technology and transformation. 

As part of this funding, NHS England announced they would roll artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce the number of missed appointments and free up staff time to help bring down the waiting list for elective care.

Hunt said in the Budget announcement that the funding boost will be provided over a three-year period, starting from April 2025. 

A lot of this funding is being put forward in an attempt to improve the productivity of the current IT system. After all, the British Journal of General Practice found that eight per cent of GP time is lost to IT issues.

While the proposed technology and generous budget is exciting for many, there has been criticism regarding the lack of funding for technology in social care. For example, health charity The King’s Fund said that the digital “part of the system will lag behind, with likely inefficiencies and a negative impact on staff and the people who draw on services.”

Looking back to the past can be an invaluable window into what the future could look like. The NHS has come a long way since its creation back in 1948, so we have taken a look at how much the technology has changed in over 75 years.

1962 - First full hip replacement

Sir John Charnley performed the first total hip replacement at Wrightington Hospital in Wigan. His method of orthopedic surgery was pioneering for the time, as his recovery plan involved a good balance of painkillers and physiotherapy. This approach to hip surgery is largely unchanged and still used today.

1968 - UK’s first heart transplant

The first heart transplant in the UK was the tenth in the world and was performed in London. The recipient of the heart, Fred West, survived for 45 days. It was only in 1979 that the first successful heart transplant was performed on Keith Castle.  

1971 - UK’s first CT scan 

Computer tomography scans (known as CT scans) were first used in the 70s, and changed the game for diagnosing brain tumours and muscle issues. 

The first CT scan was performed in Wimbledon at Atkinson Morley Hospital, now part of St George’s Hospital. The first brain CT scan took several minutes to complete, but now it takes just a matter of seconds. 

1978 - World’s first test tube baby born

Louise Brown was born in Northwest England, and is now 45 years old. While some were in awe of the technological advancements, there were others who called the milestone a “moral abomination.”  

1984 - MRI machine first used

MRI machines were the big next step in imaging since the CT scan more than ten years earlier. 

MRI scans don’t use X-rays, instead they use magnetic fields and pulses of radio frequency to produce detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and other internal body structures. Even today, the NHS is developing new ways to upgrade this technology. 

For example, in 2022, Addenbrooke’s became the first hospital to have an advanced MRI scanner which used AI to improve image quality.  

1998 - NHS Direct introduced

NHS Direct was the health service’s attempt at health advice and information service remotely. 

The service was led by NHS nurses and provided residents of England with health advice and reliable information. In 2014, it was discontinued and replaced with the 111 service.  

2012 - First person in the UK to have hand transplant

The UK does not hold a world-first record for this one, as the first ever successful hand transplant was performed in Lyon, France in 1998. 

A former pub landlord, Mark Cahill, from West Yorkshire was the first person in the UK to have the operation after his own hand was amputated due to severe gout. Twelve years on, Cahill is living a normal life with his new hand.

2021 - Highest number of NHS calls responded to in one month 

In October 2021, NHS 999 services had their busiest ever month as staff answered a record 1,012,143 calls. 

The emergency 999 call has existed before the NHS, and was first introduced in 1937 after a fire in London in November 1935 killed five people. It initially only covered a small section of London, but now includes the whole of the UK.

2024 - First artificial pancreas rolled out

In more recent news, the NHS has been trialing a new initiative since April for those with type 1 diabetes to receive an ‘artificial pancreas’. 

The device continually monitors a person’s blood glucose, then automatically adjusts the amount of insulin given to them through a pump. The technology will mean some people with type 1 diabetes will no longer need to inject themselves with insulin but rely on technology to receive this life saving medication.

One aspect of the NHS’ technology that is only just beginning is the use of AI. NHS England says it has “the potential to give health and social care practitioners back “time to care” by removing time consuming repetitive tasks that could easily be automated.”

It is being piloted in areas of the NHS such as getting a faster and more accurate diagnosis, reducing errors caused by human fatigue, assisting with repetitive tasks, and decreasing costs.

You can have a look at this guide to see where AI is already being used across the health service.

There are issues that the NHS still needs to overcome to fully reap the effects of this new tech such as deciding who will control the data used in AI systems, a lack of standards for using AI for patient care and liability and privacy issues. It will be intriguing to see what the next big milestone will be for the NHS timeline.