Bernard Ross

By Bernard Ross, CEO and founder, Sky Medical Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption to routine hospital services across the UK, with more people than ever on NHS waiting lists for elective surgeries.

In total, the NHS waiting list is now at more than four million people, with more than two million people waiting longer than 18 weeks for routine operations such as knee and hip replacements.

During the first national lockdown, planned procedures such as hip replacements were paused to free up beds. Now, a combination of growing COVID-19 cases and the usual seasonal illnesses means pressure on the NHS is increasing as the backlog grows. But could technology offer a sustainable solution?

The true cost of COVID-19

COVID-19 costs led to a £5.1 billion deficit for the NHS in England in the first four months of the financial year, compared with the pre-pandemic budget. Some of the key contributors include extending the workforce to meet the healthcare demand, absences from sickness, providing extra bed capacity, and, at the beginning of the lockdown, higher levels of prescribing. This deficit does not include the additional costs incurred by the NHS for coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment for staff over the four months, as these are covered by the Department of Health and Social Care.

But the true cost of the pandemic goes beyond the financial impact. There are massive societal and individual consequences too. When hospitals resume to normal levels of elective surgeries, patients are likely to be prioritised by clinical urgency. It was recently announced a national review will be launched amid fears that health chiefs have prioritised COVID-19 cases over the needs of all others. Therefore, patients with non-urgent but potentially disabling conditions could face longer delays for treatment.

Harnessing the power of MedTech

Medical technology has a significant role to play in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 – on both the NHS and private healthcare. The health service has leaned on technological innovations, from telemedicine to cleaning robots to bioelectronic medicine, to accelerate the delivery of treatment and improve patient outcomes. But there is also a much bigger picture. The improvement in life expectancy globally is a positive consequence of an era where exercise and nutrition have improved radically.  But it does not come without its own issues – many of which are focused on addressing the challenges of delivering a health and social care platform that is suitable and relevant to this challenge.

As lifespans lengthen, healthcare providers need different approaches to managing medical issues to be able to meet the growing demand. No healthcare system in the world has unlimited resources, nor should it.  But as our ability to keep people alive increases in line with the growing elderly population, yesterday’s medical solutions become less viable.  Traditionally, healthcare has relied on the development of new pharmaceutical treatments to address different healthcare challenges more effectively. However, these are extremely expensive to develop and do not always achieve the required accuracy needed to treat patients without some unfortunate side effects.

A new breed of medical technology is emerging that is significantly improving treatment processes for patients, reducing time spent in hospital and lifting the burden (both physical and financial) on the health system.

The appeal of these new device-based treatments is twofold: they are designed to hone in on and target specific medical challenges (as opposed to many drug therapies which can have an impact on all cells) to stimulate or restrict certain actions in the body; secondly, they are clinically-proven to improve outcomes for patients.

Collaboration leads to innovation

Medical devices can significantly reduce NHS waiting lists by making treatment pathways much more efficient. For example, wearable bioelectronic therapy, a medical device innovation already used in many NHS Trusts, sends a small electrical pulse down the lower limbs, activating the calf muscles to increase blood flow in the deep veins, to address life threatening blood clots and pre and post-operative swelling following orthopaedic surgery.

By partnering with surgeons and other healthcare professionals, medical technology companies are developing technology, such as this, to drive change to clinical practice. In this instance, the innovation significantly speeded-up time to surgery, enabled more efficient theatre time scheduling and reduced the length of patient time in hospital.  The device also follows the patient home enabling recovery to begin there – particularly critical to an NHS now needing to compress length of patent stay, due to C-19 and vastly overstretched budgets, and the need to lower readmission and revision surgeries.

In the case of ankle fracture patients for example, swelling can often delay surgical fixation due to the risks associated with operating on swollen tissue, including infection. Interventions that reduce swelling and accelerate readiness to theatre for more immediate treatment provide significant benefits to patients and healthcare providers – and crucially will help the NHS tackle the biggest challenge it has ever faced.

By treating conditions where there is currently an unmet need, MedTech can benefit millions of patients today. As the technology evolves further, medical devices could eventually be used to treat many more acute and chronic conditions – improving the lives of patients and reducing the strain on health services around the world, at a time when they need it most.