This winter was a time of crisis for the NHS as they faced recruitment problems, a lack of available beds and increased demand across the country. However, with the British Medical Association (BMA) announcing this week that the unprecedented pressure faced by health services over the past few months isn’t likely to end, the Winter Crisis risks turning into a year-long state of emergency for the NHS.
Analysing official data from the Health Department, and the figures paint a bleak image that support the BMA’s recent statement. Despite the tireless work of NHS staff in providing high quality care, the data shows that 84.6% of patients in emergency rooms and urgent care walk-in centres are seen within four hours – more than 10% below the official target of 95%.
While the difference in these figures may seem minor, concurrent reports show that essential healthcare services have gradually declined over the last few years; the result is that patient care is increasingly at risk.
To an extent, the recent downturn in the NHS is understandable. Following years of pay freezes and underfunding in health and social care services, the ‘Beast from the East’ and a flu epidemic have exposed the current structural weaknesses in the NHS.
Setting record low benchmarks for A&E waiting times in December, January and February – 77.3%, 77.1% and 76.9% respectively – and it isn't hard to see why the BMA declared the NHS to be in a state of perpetual, rather than seasonal, crisis. With hospitals such as the University Hospitals of North Midlands already committing to extend their winter contingency measures through to the summer, what can be done to get the NHS out of a long-lasting crisis?
Why funding isn't the answer
The obvious solution to problems in the NHS is more funding. However, with the Government adhering to strict financial measures, it is unlikely that the health service will receive extra investment anytime soon.
While the Chancellor did promise “more to come” for the NHS and its staff in the Spring Statement last month, this was predicated on his hopes that management and unions will reach a deal on nurses’ pay. Lacking concrete financial support for the NHS, the Chancellor’s promise also lacked commitment of where extra funding would be spent and how much it would be. Consequently, as the NHS looks to find an answer to the problems it is facing in the current political climate, funding isn’t the answer.
Indeed, even with increased funding, the rising cost of GPs, hospital staff and A&E departments mean that any new funds the Government commits is likely to be a quick-fix, rather than a proper solution that addresses the structural problems in the NHS. A permanent solution to the NHS’s current crisis therefore requires tackling the root cause of increased demand on services.
Handling rising demand
While the downturn in weather has been portrayed in national newspapers as the cause of increased patient demand, this is only partly true. More fundamental to the long-term increase is the demographic shift of an aging population.
With the King’s Fund predicting that the number of people in the UK aged over 65 will reach 10.8 million by 2032 – a 39% increase over 20 years – the NHS needs to restructure its processes and practices to effectively manage this challenge. Without doing so, services will struggle to keep up with the pressures that older generations more susceptible to illness will have on the NHS.
How can tech help?
As funding provides a short-term reprieve, the rise of technological innovation in our daily lives provides us with a potential solution to the perpetual crisis in the health service.
While the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday this year, some of its practices are stuck in 1948. For example, it might seem mundane, but the health service remains reliant on paper in the treatment of its patients. In fact, as doctors and nurses communicate across multiple practices and hospitals, the over reliance on paper has slowed down the efficiency of the service. Therefore, as the NHS looks towards the future, it is up to the health service to modernise its practices and digitalise patient information.
How HealthTech companies are revolutionising preventative care
Outside of traditional care, new technology also provides new opportunities in the home. In truth, research has shown that the UK is on the cusp of a HealthTech revolution in preventive care, with wearable technology and new apps for detecting or monitoring problems becoming increasingly accessible.
Offering a plethora of new practices and opportunities to self-manage our health, HealthTech companies are revolutionising domestic care. From smartwatches to online platforms for people to source, compare and schedule private healthcare services in the home, HealthTech companies alleviate pressure on NHS services. Furthermore, as more and more people use preventive technological solutions, demand on essential NHS services could fall.
So, returning to the start, as the BMA predicts the NHS Winter Crisis is likely to continue into the summer – perhaps even throughout the entire year – HealthTech is necessary to help the UK cope with future demands. Rather than hoping for a silver bullet solution to the NHS’ problems, tech solutions have created a new approach to healthcare, with the patient empowered to take charge of their own wellbeing, whether that’s improving their fitness or sourcing secondary and domiciliary care services.
The proliferation of new tools to give people insight into their health, and to connect individuals with vital care providers, means that more healthcare problems are treated within the home and prevented from spiralling out of control. As such, it is becoming increasing apparent that HealthTech has a valuable role to play in preventing the NHS from falling into a state of perpetual crisis.