The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented even the most developed and efficient healthcare systems with unprecedented challenges.
The digitalisation of health care is evolving at tremendous pace. In this article, the Association of British Healthcare Industries looks at the challenges facing the health technology sector and how connected care will provide savings and improve outcomes
The health technology sector (HealthTech) sector is broad and diverse. There are thousands of products on the market, from wound care dressings, needles and syringes, pacemakers, knees and hips, MRI scanners and blood pressure monitors. The products made are integral to the delivery of modern healthcare and the chances are, we will all need HealthTech at some point throughout our lives.
It is a sector driven by innovation and underpinned by strict regulation. Products are developed to target a specific need, be it the need to do something faster or more efficiently, cleaner or more cost-effectively. It is, in fact, the largest UK technology industry and is firmly positioned as a world leader in the development of digital, artificial intelligence and robotics.
Made up primarily of small and medium sized businesses, the UK’s sector boasts around 2,500 companies, employing over 93,600 people and turning over a combined total of £17 billion. HealthTech companies are supported by a service and supply sector of an additional thousand companies, employing 28,500 people with a turnover of nearly £5 billion.
Representing this sector to government, the NHS and wider industry, is the trade association, Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI). ABHI’s work focuses on economic growth, regulatory issues, ethics and compliance, diversity in the industry and international trade. The association’s 260 member companies champion the use of safe and effective HealthTech, to support health system efficiency, and crucially, high-quality patient outcomes.
In the global context for healthcare, the UK’s differentiating factor is the NHS. As the fifth largest employer in the world, it is comfortably the biggest single-payer health system. It can be a superb test-bed for innovative technologies, yet the system is under great pressure. With an ageing population comes a steady rise in chronic conditions and for some time now, funding for the NHS has not matched the complex health needs of the country.
With tight budgets, there is a natural shift to cost-saving measures. Unfortunately, this often means buying the cheapest available product. However, the cheapest product does not always mean the best overall value. A product that has a longer shelf life, is more durable and of a higher quality, may cost fractionally more per unit, but will have better outcomes for the patient or system. This in turn, leads to far greater cost savings in the long run. Added to this is the issue of patient safety. When it comes to providing safe and effective solutions to patients, results should be driven, first and foremost, by outcomes.
This view was recently echoed by Sir Bruce Keogh, the former Medical Director of NHS England. In a 2017 interview with the Daily Telegraph, he said too many hospitals were putting cost-cutting ahead of patient safety. Keogh said: “People accept that their disease has risks, they accept that the treatment may carry some risks. What they should never have to accept is that the way we design and deliver our services adds to that risk.”
International supply chains
Added to the NHS’s challenges, the impact of Brexit must be monitored closely. HealthTech products, like those in many other sectors, rely on international supply chains, meaning that products are moved around different countries for material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and sterilisation. It is not uncommon for a British product to have touched several jurisdictions before reaching the market place.
One ABHI member recently described how just one of their products crosses eight borders before completion. For suppliers to be able to move their products across borders, there needs to be practical measures in place to ensure the supply of products to a patient is uninterrupted. Without this, there is a very real danger of delayed supply, which will hit patients the hardest.
The Brexit Health Alliance, a coalition made up of the NHS, medical research sector and industry, are also calling for a smooth transition to ensure patient safety. This transition, it argues, will be critical to ensuring that the necessary changes are delivered seamlessly, with no impact on the ability of UK or EU patients to access health technologies after the UK leaves the EU.
This message was echoed in a recent report from the Health and Social Care Committee, who urged UK and EU negotiators to prioritise patient safety during Brexit negotiations. The report, entitled Brexit: medicines, medical devices and substances of human origin, said: “The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) – ‘Brexit’ - will affect many aspects of the provision of health, social care and the wider life sciences sector, both in the UK and the EU. In order to minimise harm to their citizens both sides should look to secure the closest possible regulatory alignment as a priority in the next round of negotiations.”
Yet whilst Brexit rumbles on, for patients to be able to access the best in cutting-edge technology, that is not just safe and effective, but also provides genuine value to the system, collaboration between industry and the NHS will be key. There is a real opportunity for the NHS to capitalise on manufacturing advances. It has the wide-reaching platform to create a collaborative environment where industry and the health system work together to advance the provision of healthcare and safety for patients.
Naturally, there is always room for safety improvements, but the HealthTech industry seeks to work closely with patients to better understand the factors which increase adverse events, and to develop solutions that are patient-centred. In every step of the pathway HealthTech can help. Prior to admission into hospital with advanced diagnostic technologies, right the way through to discharge, where patient monitoring devices play a significant role.
This digitalisation of health care is evolving at tremendous pace. Through patient monitoring, real time data analytics, predictive algorithms, and the emergence of AI, healthcare professionals, patients and providers now have more power than ever to monitor, manage and deliver effective healthcare.
At a recent healthcare summit, Lord James O'Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, spoke of the UK’s ‘superb Life Sciences sector’ with its leading academic institutions and thriving businesses. He said that if we can mobilise the data set, it can transform patient care, both in terms of direct care, where you are one-on-one with a clinician, and more broadly, through telemedicine systems for example. It also allows the NHS to fundamentally plan and manage its services in a completely differently way, that is much more suited to 21st century Britain. The key to utilising this data is taking the guess work out of diagnosis, with treatment based on algorithm trends, that are personalised and provide greater accuracy.
Of course, once we have the digital architecture in place, people have to feel in control and know that their data is safe and secure. Recent news has not helped this paranoia, and in light of last year’s Wannacry crisis, the NHS is actively working to ‘beef up’ its security. Clinicians and industry need to prove that data can be used in a sensitive manner. Done correctly though, and integrated across the system, the benefits are untold.
Industry is well aware of the challenges the NHS is facing, namely, infinite demand on a finite resource. Therefore, it’s absolutely all about how we deliver care. We must catch and diagnose illness earlier. Seamless, connected care, will provide huge savings, and improve outcomes. It’s about working smarter with the information we have and ensuring patients feel empowered in their healthcare journey. After all, an informed patient is a better patient.
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