Institutional Innovation

Recent events have revealed a steely national pride in an institution that remains one of the finest achievements of any British government.


Moaning about the NHS is as much a national pastime as discussing the weather. But while it may be okay for British taxpayers to air the odd the grievance or for our own newspapers to relentlessly hype dubious ‘superbug’ scandals, recent events have revealed a steely national pride in an institution that remains one of the finest achievements of any British government.


Just in case you have been languishing in a beach-induced news vacuum, here’s a quick recap. Several US republicans and commentators, opposed to president Barack Obama’s plans to extend health insurance to the 46 million Americans who currently slip through the net, have cited a series of scare stories about our heath service as evidence of the dangers of socialised healthcare. Many of these are wildly inaccurate. There has, for instance, been much written about the existence in the UK of so-called ‘death panels’ deciding the fate of terminally ill or elderly people, while one particularly idiotic editorial argued that ‘people such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK’. Prof Hawking, born and bred in the UK, was quick to retort that without the NHS he wouldn’t be here.


Leading the throng of senior British medics and politicians now mounting a stateside defence of the health service is former health minister, surgical pioneer and healthcare technology champion Lord Ara Darzi, who has been giving a series of interviews with US television stations.


Although Darzi has chiefly been despatched to debunk and rubbish some of the more ludicrous claims flying about, his involvement is a reminder that, when it’s not providing healthcare to all British taxpayers, it acts as a critical spur and source of funding for the research and development that has made the UK a centre for medical engineering excellence.


Darzi himself, through his NHS-funded research at ImperialCollege, St Mary’s Hospital and the Royal Marsden, has pioneered the use of robotic surgery in the UK. He is currently working on the development of an advanced tele-operated system that, rather than creating incisions, uses the body’s existing orifices as entry points. Without the NHS, these techniques, which have huge potential to reduce suffering and improve treatment, would only be available to the select few in the UK, as they are in the US.


NHS funding and research has also played a key role in the development of the digital healthcare technology pioneered by Imperial College’s Prof Chris Toumazou. Expected to be a key element of future healthcare provision, this is another technology that has been given space to grow by the health service.


Before we’re accused of mounting yet another jingoistic defence of the NHS, we should also note there are shortcomings to its approach to innovation: the monumentally expensive and much-derided £2.4bn Connecting for Health IT project is a notable example of things going awry. It is also frequently criticised for not embracing ‘life-saving’ technologies quickly enough. However, responding to this point in an interview with The Engineer last year, Darzi made a prescient comparison between UK and US healthcare when he suggested that that the wider dissemination of healthcare technology in the US is often more to do with marketing than clinical evidence.



Jon Excell
Deputy Editor