The NHS is Going Digital: This is Why We Should Be Excited

By James O Malley on at

The NHS could be about to get much smarter - if new plans are to be believed.

In the new announcement, the NHS has committed to integrating its 111 helpline services with NHS "endorsed" third party apps and services - with progress expected by March 2016.

This follows moves to roll out wifi in NHS hospitals so that doctors can go paperless - as well as access digital records, and have patient data saved centrally rather than left hanging on the end of a hospital bed. Intriguingly there is also scope for doctors giving patients wearable devices to wear to monitor their health whilst in hospital - so don't be surprised if next time you go for a check up the doctor hands you a Fitbit.

Apparently some digital progress has already been made - with 97% of GPs enabling patients to book appointments online. The intention is that by 2018 patients will be able to view their entire medical records online.

The reason this is particularly intriguing is that it points to a future where the NHS is much smarter, and one that will be better place to make informed healthcare decisions. In a sense, it sounds as though the NHS is moving in the same direction as the rest of central government's digital services, as evidenced on the GOV.UK website, which views itself as a platform for a wide range of government services.

If the NHS opens up in a similar way, that means that we could conceivably soon see phone apps which let us access our medical records and more importantly let us feed our data to the NHS.

At the moment if you visit your GP, they will have to make a decision on your health based on whatever they can figure out from your unreliable testimonial during an 8 minute chat. Now imagine how much better that decision would be if you doctor could review all of the health data collected by your Apple Watch before you even reach the surgery. If you could share with the NHS just as easily as you can sign in with Facebook, it could be game-changing. Heck, if you were sharing your data like this you wouldn't even need to make an appointment - the doctor would email you if their algorithms flag up the fact that you're eating too much cake and not running enough.

The benefits that data can bring to the NHS can also be good for healthcare and the NHS as an institution too.

For the past few years the NHS has been trying to get a programmed called Care.Data running - which would enable greater sharing of (pseudonymised) data with scientists. Whilst the roll out has been a disaster due to poor implementation and communication, the principle behind it is a good one: with more data, scientists have more to go on when working on new drugs and other types of care. Apple realises this too, and in its major keynote at the end of last year announced plans to let researchers build apps and access health data to users who opt-in. If the NHS can work with this programme, or do a similar thing, then there will be more people, providing more data, to cure more diseases. Which can only be a good thing. (And compelling reasons for sharing data like this are going to make the inevitable debate over privacy and incredibly tricky one to navigate.)

The other benefit of opening up is that it could help head off some of the very real threats to the future of the NHS. We know that demand on the health service is going to increase - so if data can be used smartly it could make healthcare more efficient. Less time wasted on unnecessary check-ups and crucially, more preventative healthcare too.

The steps the NHS has announced today are only one of the first steps - if the NHS can open up and embrace digital, then it could be transformative.