Connected technology: are public health services ready?

In the UK in 1948, Aneurin Bevan’s dream was realised; the National Health Service, healthcare for all, free at the point of use.  Over 70 years later, the NHS employs over 1.7 million people and deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours. But are public health services like the NHS ready to embrace and adopt wide-scale connected technology?

So far in our Smart Health blog series, we have considered the future of healthcare and the benefits that smart technology bring to patients and caregivers, particularly in relation to giving autonomy back to the individual. But how can this technology scale to make a real difference to public health services as a whole, not just in the UK but across the world?

So, what’s happened so far?

For the last decade, healthcare has been moving away from paper-based records. By now, most of us are familiar with online appointment systems and self check in terminals, but healthcare providers are also saving time and resources with technology.

While cyber security can be a concern, Electronic Health Records (EHR) have increased safety, allowing clinicians immediate access to information using secure systems.

In 2010 the Department of Health initiated a study known as the National Mobile Worker Project.  The aim was to understand mobile working and evaluate whether productivity and efficiency could be improved.  Community workers were provided with Panasonic Toughbooks with access to private networks holding patient data. They found that moving from paper based to electronic records increased safety, allowing clinicians access whilst out in the community but keeping those records secure.  The final report on the project showed that staff provided with Toughbooks were able to work more flexibly, productivity was increased and staff spent considerably more time face-to-face with patients.

Toughbooks are now used across the NHS, from paramedics to community nurses.  Remote access allows all authorised staff to view and update records wherever they are, however distant from their base.  Before giving advice, they are able to check to make sure the information they provide is in line with best practice – essential when prescribing or administering medication.  Another benefit is in communication with hard-to-reach children and patients. Toughbooks can access creative apps, so, for example, children who struggle to express themselves can draw on the screen to communicate.

Wider areas of the health service may not use much in the way of smart tech beyond added security; obtaining a code to gain access to a laptop via an app when working remotely as an example.  However, staff are promoting technology such as GPS or health trackers to their service users for personal use.

And the future?

The UK health service is just at the beginning of its smart tech journey.  With the advent of the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) the possibilities seem endless; almost any medical equipment can be connected or retrofitted, from X-ray machines to hospital beds.  Not only will patient monitoring improve, but performance of equipment; remote diagnostics, predictive maintenance and upgrades will all be optimised. Cost reductions will come from these time-saving devices but not at the detriment of quality of care.  New apps will increase the independence of patients and reduce strain on busy staff; imagine being able to order hospital meals or make a request for an extra pillow via your phone!

Outside of the hospital, Remote Patient Monitoring (RMT) is becoming more commonplace, particularly beneficial for patients with chronic illness, the elderly, or those needing support at home.  Virtual assistants, monitors, apps and trackers, all reducing frequent hospital visits and improving the sharing of data.  Advances in technology are being announced all the time, from connected health devices to compact and portable haemodialysis systems.

AI software will help ensure all this incredible data doesn’t overwhelm medical professionals; intelligently sifting through information and only communicating important details.

Cellular connectivity presents a secure, reliable and scalable solution to the challenge of keeping patient data safe and reducing the risks of cyber attacks on medical devices. Security measures including unique IP addresses for each IMoT device means data is highly unlikely to get mixed up, and secure cellular networks keeps data away from the public internet and prevents legacy IT systems from becoming overloaded.

The public health sector is likely to take longer to adopt Smart Health applications than the private sector, but the benefits that connected technology could bring to our public services are significant and tangible.

 

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