Health July 11, 2018
Digital health offers huge potential for the NHS

By Daniel Male - Accountable Care Journal

The NHS has just experienced a record-breaking winter. The pressures on primary care across the country came at levels never seen before. Few hospitals dropped below 95 per cent capacity throughout the winter months and we are still seeing capacity well above the 85 per cent target as we enter the summer months. Harry Cromack, policy analyst at Consentric, looks at challenges and opportunities that digital health offers the NHS.

There are several contributing factors, both on a political and social scale. We have an ageing population, delivering patients with complex illnesses which take longer to treat and require a large amount of ongoing care once the patient is discharged. The knock-on effect of this is higher demand for social care than ever before, with providers struggling to meet the required supply to fulfil this ever-increasing demand. These problems mean the political debate around the NHS has never been more toxic, with both main parties fighting over the matters that have caused the current issues.

However, with the potential that digital health and patient data offer both patients and clinicians, I believe we are entering an exciting time in healthcare. Deploying these technologies in the correct areas and coupling them with more effective uses of patient data could go some way in helping the NHS meet the current demand for its services.

One exciting opportunity is empowering patients with their health data. This can be seen through two main solutions. Trusts and CCGs across the UK are looking at ways they can improve patients' immediate access to health data. Some patients can now view their medical records online, giving them greater knowledge and awareness of their own health, allowing them to best manage their illnesses and avoid hospital admission.

Secondly, we are beginning to see applications designed specifically at empowering the patient with their own health management. Consentric by MyLife Digital is providing the personal-data management capabilities for the Diabetes Digital Coach test-bed – one of seven high-profile NHS England pilot projects targeting 5.5 million diabetes sufferers. The aim is to equip them to manage their condition, using digital tools and data available. Funded under the NHS Internet of Things (IoT) programme, the platform is set to go live this year.

Providing patient choice

This puts patients in control. They can choose whether or not to share their data and with whom. Permissions are managed in a secure, central, cloud-based personal data ‘strongbox’ which can sit across any number of health-related or administration-based IT systems and connect to patient websites, mobile apps, and even wearable devices. This acts as a single window to control and audit individual data permissions.

This data can be accessible to clinicians, allowing them to gain a better understanding of their patients' conditions and identify any problems that arise, potentially avoiding them being admitted to hospital.

Alongside this app, the NHS is beginning to provide an increased amount of online services, allowing patients to gain information about their conditions quickly. Testing of the new NHS 111 app in selected North London boroughs last year showed an alternative tool for accessing integrated urgent care and connecting patients to clinicians, with the aim of reducing pressure on the NHS during busy winter periods.

In less than two minutes, the app can help people to decide whether their symptoms need to be seen by a GP or at a hospital, or whether alternative options are best. This empowers the patient to make the correct decision about their care, will reduce the number of patients walking through the doors A&E, and allow clinicians to focus those most in need.

Moving forward, MyLife Digital hopes the Government will provide the NHS with the resources to invest more money and time into innovating digital health. Patient privacy will be an area the NHS and digital health providers will have to take seriously. Digital health applications will produce vast amounts of sensitive health information which will have to be stored and shared in the correct way. This is especially relevant following the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation which could land organisations with hefty fines if they are not compliant.

There is great potential for digital health tools to boost efficiencies in the NHS, save money and improve patient outcomes. Investing now will mean the NHS can deliver extremely effective digital health solutions, empower their patients to take accountability for their own health and provide staff with better tools to deliver high standards of care.