The Future of the NHS: Slick Apps, Virtual Wards and Fitbits For Old People

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

The NHS isn’t in good shape. Money’s short, morale is dreadfully low and increasingly pissed off medics up and down the country are choosing to either retire early or up sticks and find more favourable working conditions elsewhere. You don’t need me to tell you where that may leave us.

That’s why I felt a little uncomfortable meeting Dr Magnus Harrison, the executive medical director of Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, to talk about the role of technology in the future of the NHS. Fortunately for me, Harrison was a pleasantly straight-talking interviewee.

“We’re in a bad, bad place,” he says almost immediately, referencing the organisation’s money troubles. Harrison says he works in a small general hospital that makes yearly operating losses, and he’s come to terms with the fact that technology needs to be embraced.

“We need to make a transformational change. That means doing better things, not doing things better. Connectivity is crucial. Our IT infrastructure is poor. We don’t really need that. 4G will save us a boatload of cash.”

Mobile operator EE has just revealed Connected Health, which comprises a mobile messaging system and a pair of trial apps, all of which the company and public health services hope end up improving efficiency and saving much-needed cash.

The first of these is Intelligent Messaging. It’s simply an SMS service that links patients with their local practice, allowing them to exchange messages quickly and easily. GPs could use the system to automatically send appointment and prescription reminders to patients, who in turn would be able to reply immediately with any concerns, requests or cancellations. Harrison reckons that this alone could reduce missed appointments by 65 per cent, which could save the NHS a massive £585 million per year.

The Patient GP mobile app also falls within the Connected Health portfolio, and is currently being trialled in practices in various parts of the country. It’s a slick little bit of software that goes a bit further than Intelligent Messaging. It enables patients to book, view and cancel appointments, as well as manage their own prescriptions and view their medical history. It’s beautifully straightforward to use -- think Uber or Just Eat -- and I wish it was here already.

Finally, there’s the Clinical Observations app, which focuses on secondary care. It’s also part of a pilot scheme right now, and is essentially a digital version of those long-words-in-terrible-handwriting-packed clipboards you find at the foot of hospital beds. It’s a web app called ThinkVitals, which medical staff can feed vital signs and other patient observations into, allowing tablet-carrying clinicians to recognise signs of deterioration in real time. It could also take a load off consultants' minds, as ThinkVitals would enable senior nurses to deliver correct doses in their absence.

Harrison also tells me that the NHS wants to be a completely paperless body by the time 2020 rolls in, because he sees the stuff as a costly, inefficient barrier.

This is all well and good, but digitisation, apps and 4G are nothing new. It’s great that the NHS is showing signs of progress, in terms of technology, but this all represents a game of catch-up. Harrison fortunately has a few more nuggets of information to share, but there's both good and bad news.

“We can’t be a bed-based service anymore,” he says, before dropping the words ‘virtual wards’ into our conversation. No, Harrison isn’t referring to a VR version of Theme Hospital. He’s saying that patients, especially those with long-term conditions, are going to have to help take the load off doctors and nurses. If that means staying away from hospitals as long as possible, so be it.

For instance, people with heart conditions may soon be required to weigh themselves on a regular basis, with that information automatically being fed to the hospital’s systems. Only once any sort of meaningful weight gain has been recorded would it be time for the clinicians to spring into action.

Over-65s would also be given more responsibility for managing their own wellbeing, and an idea that’s been floated involves wearables. Harrison believes that gadgets like Fitbit could eventually be used to disrupt social care, helping prevent common illnesses by simply encouraging patients to move more and adopt a healthier lifestyle. However, wearables are expensive, and the NHS doesn't exactly have money to burn.

Sensor-loaded bandages are also under consideration, as well as back-of-ambulance cameras capable of streaming footage of patients back to hospitals, providing medics with an accurate indication of the sort of help that's required. Sounds good, no?

Unfortunately, when I ask Harrison how many of these plans are actually in action, his answer is one I expected, but didn't want to hear. “Nothing at all,” he replies. Harrison, while forward-thinking, is realistic. Though he's also determined.

"This is a call to arms," he says. "I’m fiercely proud of the NHS. I don’t want it to go under.” Neither do we.