To mark the BBC's coverage of the NHS's 70th birthday in July 2018, researchers from the Health Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, The King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust have joined forces for the first time, using combined expertise to shed light on some of the big questions on the NHS.
The four organisations have been asked by the BBC to look at five key topics, covering the relative strengths and weaknesses of the health service, its funding, the state of social care, the public’s expectations of the NHS and the potential of technology to change things in future. This project and the reports we have produced are intended to inform the national conversation about the past, present and future of the NHS.
This report, the last in a series of five, considers the potential impact of technology on the health service.
It is notoriously difficult to predict how technological advances will interact with health services and the policy landscape to shape the future of health care. This report provides numerous examples of developments that were anticipated to transform health care, but that failed to deliver – at least in the short term. Meanwhile, other key advances have been made with little fanfare or prior expectation. So instead of attempting to predict what the 'next big thing' will be, we look at four current trends and what they might mean for health care over the next 5–10 years if they continue to progress.
All of these have the potential to improve health care:
- Genomics and precision medicine can target treatment interventions at specific sub-groups of patients, potentially making them more effective and opening up new therapeutic possibilities.
- Remote care can improve access to health care services, enabling patient needs to be addressed as early as possible and potentially making systems more efficient.
- Technology-supported self-management can help to empower patients to better manage and understand their condition, supporting improved behavioural and clinical outcomes.
- Data can provide new ways for the NHS to learn, improve and generate new research – alongside artificial intelligence (AI), which is providing new analytical capacity for diagnosing patients, effective triage and logistics.
If the trends outlined here continue to progress, they have the potential to completely transform health care. But substantial barriers also exist which slow the implementation of these new
technologies. Many require large changes to the workforce – professionals learning to work in new ways or, in some cases, even entirely new roles. The impact of such change should not be underestimated. Similarly, implementing new technology effectively often entails new workflows which require clinician buy-in, effective leadership and adaptability.
And when it comes to technology that has the potential to fundamentally change the prevailing narrative of health care, such as smart appliances to detect illness, much depends on legislation, NHS infrastructure, the political context and public expectations.
Technology, then, may only be the secondary driver of significant change in the long term. So while there is no doubt technology offers sizable benefits to the NHS (and is often hailed as the saviour of health services by politicians), the NHS needs to be aware of the challenges and opportunity costs that new advances present, as well as the policy questions that need answering in order to make the most of future potential.
Castle-Clarke S (2018) What will new technology mean for the NHS and its patients? Nuffield Trust