Can technology help the health service off the critical list?

Editor/content director

If you’re planning on whiling away the run-up to this year’s election with a diverting game of manufacturing bingo it’s probably best not to hope for a full house.

Instead, if the tenor of current arguments is anything to go by, engineering and manufacturing (which loomed large in the discourse last time around) will be eclipsed by an issue that’s currently dominating the debate: the state of the UK’s beleaguered health service.

Every party has a view on how on how Britain’s best-loved institution can be preserved and, as usual, woolly promises abound.

What an electorate tired of empty platitudes really wants to hear is practical solutions.

So could politicians be missing a trick by failing to recognise the role that engineers and technology could play in addressing the challenges that face the health service?

There are many reasons for the current crisis: not least the significant cuts of the last few years. And should any of the opposition parties get the chance to deliver on their pledges to increase funding and staffing numbers there might well be some short-term respite.

But in the longer term irresistible demographic forces are at play that will demand a fundamental shift in the way the service operates.

By 2030 there will be 50 per cent more over-65s, and more than double the number of over-85s alive in England than in 2010. And this rapid growth of the number of people living into their late eighties, as well as a corresponding increase in the number of younger people able to look after them, will place unprecedented pressures on the healthcare system.

Indeed, in an interview with The Guardian earlier this week the medical director of NHS England Prof Sir Bruce Keogh warned that the service simply cannot meet the demands of an ageing population and that in the face of this phenomenon it will have to fundamentally change.

Which is where engineers come in.

As previously reported in The Engineer, digital healthcare technology that can remotely monitor a host of vital signs and bodily functions has the potential to significantly reduce the burden on hospitals and healthcare workers. It could enable more patients to be screened and tested in their homes, reduce the number of patients going to hospitals or GPs in the first place, and enable them to return home more quickly after surgery. The technology also has longer-term preventative applications by enabling younger people to reduce the consequences of entering old age in an unfit state.

Digital healthcare is singled out in a report “Patient of The Future: 2020” published this week by UK medical technology expert Plextec Consulting, which argues that technological advances in the medical sector – largely underpinned by sensing technology – are poised to drive the most fundamental progression the UK health service has ever seen.

The report also highlights the huge potential for UK business. The global sensor market for consumer healthcare is expected to be worth $47bn by 2020, and thanks to the work of engineers like Prof Chris Toumazou, the UK boasts some truly world-class expertise in the field.  It’s time for government to offer more support for this growing field of UK excellence.

Despite the technology’s promise, progress is frustratingly slow. The NHS is so wrapped up in trying to limp along in the face of pressing problems that it doesn’t have the space to innovate.

But It’s not too late for politicians to seize some truly progressive ground, to stop getting bogged down in the some old arguments, and to recognise that technology innovation represents perhaps the best hope for the health service’s long term sustainability.