UK Health Minister: ‘Tech has made a huge impact on our battle against the disease’

Hosted by trade association techUK, the two-day Future Summit on 10-11 February brought together thought leaders, technology experts and policymakers to focus on four key themes – people, society, economy and the planet.

In a keynote address today, Lord Bethell of Romford, parliamentary under-secretary of state for innovation, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), shared key learnings from the pandemic and ways to create a legacy for going forward.

WHY IT MATTERS

Learnings from the pandemic are constantly evolving as we continue to learn more about the novel COVID-19 virus. During this unprecedented phase for healthcare, technology has enabled large-scale data sharing, remote consultations and EHR integrations, as well as innovations to reduce infection rates.  

techUK has published a plan setting out 10 recommendations to accelerate the digitalisation of the health and care sector. The Ten Point Plan aims to ensure digital technology is at the forefront of improving outcomes for citizens and transforming how care is delivered nationally.

Furthermore, Lord Bethell made the case for why technology will continue to remain at the centre of our healthcare infrastructure.

ON THE RECORD

Prior to the pandemic, the UK had invested in the NHS 111 service and many GP surgeries who had already put in place video conferencing facilities. According to Lord Bethell, organisations like NHSX did “an amazing job of firing up the capability” during the pandemic. Every GP surgery now has video-consultation capability, with roughly 50% of appointments now done over video.

Emphasising this shift and the impact of medicine technology, Lord Bethell said: “The most vivid and the most emblematic example of where medtech has made a difference is the huge shift from GP face-to-face attendance to video templates.”

When reflecting on whether the nation will go back to the old ways of delivering healthcare, Bethell admitted: “It wouldn’t surprise me if the number [of video-consultations] went up and edged up further and further and GPs themselves, many of whom have commitments at home, I think profoundly like that arrangement.”

Lord Bethell continued to praise the invaluable use of technology during the pandemic, as well as the need to take advantage of the momentum: “Tech, in the broadest sense of the word has made a huge impact on our battle against the disease. Not actually in some of the ways that maybe we thought at the beginning, it might do, but in ways that are possibly more profound, and will leave a longer legacy on our healthcare system.”

 

Covering the five main areas where tech has made a big difference, Lord Bethell highlighted the “colossal number of files generated” by the pandemic and acknowledged that significant boundaries had been broken in the area of data sharing. In the UK, the biggest troves of data have come from clinical trials, NHS Test and Trace, long COVID, the vaccine roll-out and the hotel quarantine system. With the addition of testing in schools and workplaces, these initiatives are now generating approximately 3 million patient records a day.

Thanking all those in health care in tech and data who have “colossally” scaled the capability of the system, Lord Bethell concedes: “This is a massive increase in the quantity of data. The processing power involved has been absolutely huge, and I think represents a huge opportunity.”

In September last year, the DHSC sent thousands of iPads to social care with the aim of putting the power into the hands of the public. “Giving someone an iPad and an oxygen meter for their finger and the ability to supervise their symptoms remotely from home is hugely important.

“Tech has presented really great technology that means that we can confidently keep an eye on thousands of patients, keeping them at home, sparing them a hospital visit and leaving the beds free,” he explained.

Although Lord Bethell largely praised the work done at the NHSX, in particular by CEO, Matthew Gould and the team, he added: “There is far too much siloed data (…) we need much greater standardisation, use of API’s and the use of platforms so that data can flow more smoothly.”

Addressing the draft of the government’s white paper on planned NHS legislative changes that was leaked on 4 February, he said: “In terms of enshrining the role of integrated care systems into law, you may well have seen the leaked copy of the NHS bill. We hope to be announcing that more formally very shortly indeed.”

The need for a thriving startup industry was also mentioned as an area of potential growth for the UK: “We haven’t created a new ecology of small startups and kick-ass challenging, disruptive tech companies.

“I pay tribute to those who are already in the market, but the market could be bigger, it could be more empowered, it could have better access to the data platforms of the NHS. We could, as a government, and as a system be doing more to have a startup Britain approach to medical technology.”

Concluding the speech by referencing Israel’s rapid and ambitious digital health frameworks, Lord Bethell admitted: “We do need a little bit more of Tel Aviv in Tech City, UK. That is something that I am really conscious of. I know Matthew Gould is also conscious of, and I would very much welcome your advice on how we can do that.”

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