How technology can save our healthcare system

Britain’s hospitals have long suffered from a lack of beds. Now, technology could have the answer, says Tom Bulford – and that means opportunities for investors.

Last week a friend of mine was ill. He went to the hospital but was sent home. The reason? All the hospital beds were full. He was told that he could either wait six hours for a bed to become vacant or go home and monitor his own condition.

I was pretty shocked by that. But it turns out that this situation is by no means unique.

An increasing number of hospital beds in this country are occupied by elderly people with chronic conditions. And as the population ages, there will be even more of them. There are two solutions to this problem. Either we build more hospitals or we find ways of keeping patients at home. And in today’s budgetary conditions, the last thing that the government wants to do is build more hospitals.

Luckily, technology offers an alternative. Today I want to introduce you to a few new buzzwords – including ‘telehealth’, ‘telecare’, ‘e-health’ and ‘m-health’. Because these could be the future of the healthcare in this country. And I’m actually busy looking for great penny shares in this space at the moment.

UK hospitals are catching up on everyone else

There are a few key strands to this story. First of all technology can help hospitals and health authorities manage their data more efficiently. Some UK hospitals can have 30 different IT systems running in parallel. There is a desperate need for an overhaul, to allow managers to run these complex operations more efficiently.

Relatively simple modules such as the optimisation of employment schedules are offered by Allocate Software (ALL), while Craneware (CRW) has made a highly successful business by simplifying the production of treatment invoices in the United States.

Patient records are another focus of health authorities. It has proved rather difficult for the NHS to convert its paper patient records to digital format. This should have been a relatively straightforward task. But the future is surely electronic records, where they are accessible anytime, anywhere – including, for example, via your doctor’s laptop when he pays you a visit.

 

You could be your own doctor

But while these represent ways of making administration more efficient, technology can also radically alter our approach to healthcare. There are high hopes for remote patient monitoring. A range of devices are now available that enable a patient to monitor his own condition and then send this to his doctor.

Meanwhile smart plasters, such as those developed by Toumaz (TMZ), are stuck to the body so that tiny sensors can monitor vital signs such as pulse and heart rate. The data is sent wirelessly to a remote station where it can be monitored by a nurse. A problem with these systems is that they do require the co-operation of patients, which is not always forthcoming.

In Penny Sleuth on 2 October, I mentioned Oxehealth, which hopes to get around this by using a camera to monitor a patient’s condition. Oxehealth is a private company but the quoted IP Group (IPO) has a stake in it.

This could be rolled out to three million in the UK

In England, the Department of Health has launched its ‘3 Million Lives’ campaign, aiming to implement remote monitoring for three million people with chronic conditions. But the technology is especially well suited to rural areas where patients live many miles from the doctor. In Scotland, a programme called DALLAS (Delivering assisted Living and Lifestyles at Scale) is promoting remote healthcare in the Highlands and Islands region.

The mobile communication industry has spotted an opportunity here. In Sweden, anybody fearing that they have skin cancer can simply take a photograph of the suspected spot with their iPhone and send it to a doctor for inspection. New mobile apps can allow doctors to access patient records, to instantly consult treatment information or consult colleagues.

Doctors can also now take part in procedures, even from far away. By sending live images of the patient, surgeons can benefit from the expertise of doctors elsewhere. In the United States this has been critical in reducing stroke complications. The health service in Wales has now invested £350,000 in its own ‘telestroke’ service.

A fertile ground for investors

Finally as healthcare authorities and employers wake up to the importance of physical fitness a range of mobile apps and smart devices have been devised to monitor and exercise levels. Targets can be set and competitions can be run between workers. You may remember I mentioned AIM-quoted Fitbug (FITB) back in April. I see them as a major player here.

As technology is applied to healthcare much more is going on. Today systems can tell whether a patient has taken his pills. Motion sensors embedded into an artificial knee can monitor its performance as the patient takes exercise.

There are plenty of competitors and there is also a question mark over who will pay for these innovations. But with overwhelming need to cut healthcare costs this should be fertile ground for investors. I am going to be keeping a very close eye with developments here.

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