The NHS has extraordinary hidden potential

For years, the NHS has been sitting on a vast resource that it has failed to exploit. That is until now, explains Tom Bulford – and the results could be very profitable indeed.

Last week, I went down to the Innovations in Healthcare show at London’s Excel Centre. I subjected myself to some standard medical tests. My body mass index is 23.6kg/m2, my pulse is 97 per minute (a little high, I fear), and my flow mediated dilation score (a measure of the elasticity of my arteries) is 6.9.

But aside from offering a free health check, this exhibition gave some useful insights into the future of healthcare.

The pioneering UK health industry

A glittering cast of speakers included Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, Sir Mark Walport, who is to be the government’s new chief scientific advisor, Lord Darzi, the head of surgery at Imperial College and Sir John Bell, who founded the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. They were bullish about the UK health industry, which has a proud history.

In 1928, the Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson of Cambridge University were the first to describe the structure of the DNA molecule. The Sanger Centre is a leader in gene sequencing. We also have the NHS, which we should see as an asset rather than a liability, explained the speakers.

To understand why, listen to James Heywood, co-founder of PatientsLikeMe, a site on which anyone can chat about their health with others of similar experience. Instead of relying on medical theory, Heywood believes that the best way to judge medicine is to see what works. That means asking other patients.

Despite this rather obvious insight, there has been little attempt to measure outcomes. For this to be possible we need access to patients’ records, but these have been written on paper with different files for primary care, secondary care and for old-age homes.

It beggars belief that the NHS still does not have fully digitised patient records, but that is the situation and Hunt has now set a deadline of 2018 to change this.


Two advantages of a digital patient database

This will bring two important advantages. First it will make patient records available to anyone who has a smartphone and an internet connection. Nurses will no longer have to gather armfuls of files before visiting patients. Whether you are at home, in hospital or travelling in a foreign country, the doctor can access your full medical history.

But the second benefit of paperless patient records is that they become a digital database. This can then be used to check outcomes and search for other factors, physical or otherwise, that might have affected the success of treatment.

Because of its long history, and because of is uniquely large and varied list of patients, the NHS gives us a real advantage over other countries, and its patient records should be a highly valuable database.

Some other themes emerged from the event. One was the importance of managing ‘wellness’ as well as ‘illness.’ Dr Brigitte Piniewski from Peace Laboratories, Canada, said that the majority of young Americans are “profoundly unwell”, due to a poor diet and a lazy lifestyle.

The health service, though, does not move into action until somebody becomes ill, when treatment costs can be high. This point was echoed by Sir Mark Walport, who said that we should “focus on health as well as disease”.

Prevention is better than the cure

Diagnostics is another strong theme. The tests that I was able to take are designed to tell me whether I am likely to get ill. The AngioDefender, which measured the elasticity of my blood vessels, gives an early warning of cardiovascular disease.

Another product on show was the Peptest which can quickly identify the presence of pepsin, associated with cystic fibrosis and sinusitis. Prevention is not only better than cure, but it saves money for the Health Service.

Finally, many of the exhibitors were involved with telehealth. This involves self-monitoring medical devices allied to wireless communication that can allow us to monitor our condition from home, and send information to a remote location where it is monitored by experts.

There’s special equipment to monitor your blood pressure or blood glucose levels. Not only can this spot potential health problems, but it also takes the pressure off GPs’ surgeries.

In future, then, we will be encouraged to participate. We will be asked to stay fit and monitor our health. And with the data that we provide into this interactive ecosystem, medical experts will be better able to devise the best treatment.

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