Posted on June 11, 2018 by staff

NHS should stop buying fax machines and embrace automation


The NHS is way behind other sectors when it comes to embracing technology even though the potential gains are massive, according to the co-author of a new report.

A landmark report into the future of the National Health Service led by eminent surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi will find that £12.5 billion worth of frontline time – almost ten per cent of the NHS’ annual running costs – could be freed up every year by investing in a far-reaching programme of automation.

The findings, released today, come from the IPPR progressive policy think tank. Harry Quilter-Pinner, IPPR Research Fellow and a co-author of the report, told BusinessCloud that the NHS needs to get on board with the digital revolution.

“Compared with other sectors, the NHS has been transformed very little by the digital revolution,” he said. “We bank online, our friendships and relationships are now online, our shopping’s all online – but a lot of our health services are very much analogue.

“We still often ring up or go in face-to-face to book GP appointments, while our consultations and prescriptions are done face-to-face. Many of our administrative tasks could be automated.”

Research commissioned last year by Google DeepMind Health found that the NHS is the biggest purchaser in the world of fax machines while in a separate report digital solutions company CommonTime found 130,000 pagers were being used by its staff – ten per cent of all the pagers being used around the globe.

“These are two technologies you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a digital organisation of the 21st Century,” said Quilter-Pinner.

His report will find that a further £6bn productivity gain could be realised by automation within social care, where 30 per cent of repetitive administration-based tasks could be carried out.

The report claims that adopting the technology into health and social care will complement human skills rather than replace jobs.

“In the 21st century NHS, it might not be the sound of a bedpan dropping that is heard in Whitehall, but that of a robot picking it up,” Lord Darzi’s report will state.

“The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade.”

Quilter-Pinner points to the ongoing concerns over health data, especially after GDPR came into force, as a key area of focus.

“Our report will suggest that we need to take a step back and look at our data security systems in the NHS,” he said. “There is a tension between the security of data and privacy on the one hand and, on the other, innovation and using that data to improve healthcare.

“If we can’t use that data, we are tying our hands behind our backs when it comes to improving the treatment and diagnosis of conditions.”

Lord Darzi (pictured above) is a pioneer in robotics-assisted minimally invasive surgery who says that artificial intelligence systems are already able to undertake some surgical tasks such as tying knots and making stitches with greater accuracy and dexterity than humans—and that these developments are set to expand in the decade ahead. He is also an academic.

“He says that if those two things aren’t joined, that if he as an academic isn’t allowed to use that data, the surgery that he does downstairs suffers,” said Quilter-Pinner.

Lord Darzi proposes creating an automation fund to invest in digital infrastructure and to offer all staff impacted by automation “the right to retrain”.

The report identifies communicating medical notes, booking appointments and processing prescriptions among the many activities that should be carried out through digital technology.

“Part of that innovation fund should be allowing GPs half a day out of the office with their colleagues and experts to talk about what automating some of their frontline workforce would look like – and see how other practices are working that have done that already,” said Quilter-Pinner.

“It is not possible for them to innovate at the moment, given the amount of time and pressure they have.”

The report envisages a possible future in which robots and artificial-intelligence based systems play a key role in assessing, treating and supporting clinical practice to offer clinicians more time to focus on direct patient care.

The ‘bedside robots’ of the future may assist patients with meals, transportation and rehabilitation while biosensors could allow the remote monitoring and alerting responses to clinical observations, such as potentially life-threatening sepsis.

So-called ‘care-bots’ could also empower people in old age, enabling them to remain more connected with friends and family. Trials are already under way of robotic pets which do not require to be cared for.

Lord Darzi and his colleague, Lord Prior, a former Conservative health minister, have argued for an injection of cash rising to more than £50bn a year for the NHS by 2030, and £10bn a year for social care.

Last month they proposed raising National Insurance contributions by a penny in the pound to fund the necessary increases for the next four years.