• Wearable devices have potential to deliver a real-time, nationwide 'triage'
• Data sharing across healthcare also key – but not even on parties' radars
The three main parties' election policies for safeguarding the NHS lack vision and are "startlingly analogue", a leading technology company has warned. As a result, a key opportunity to transform healthcare in Britain for the better in the five years to 2020 has been missed.
Anomaly42.com, which research house Gartner refers to as a new breed of 'context broker', warns that none of the funding pledges made by the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats will be anywhere near sufficient to resolve the financial shortfall the NHS is facing.
Rather than try to outbid each other in an attempt to score political points, Anomaly42 argues, policymakers should be looking to new technologies to help solve the NHS's problems — specifically the new breed of wearable devices and the sharing of data by key healthcare players for the common good. But in this regard all three parties have proved short-sighted.
"The political bickering over which party will do the best job of safeguarding the NHS is an embarrassment," said Freddie McMahon, a director of Anomaly42. "The key to improving healthcare for us all does not lie in an auction of spending promises, because the NHS in its current form is a bottomless pit as far as resources go. Instead, politicians should be looking around them to new solutions. In wearable tech and data sharing, the technology already exists to make a huge impact on some of the most intractable problems affecting the healthcare system, but our politicians have shown themselves to be startlingly analogue and without vision in this regard."
The scale of the challenge is underlined by the financial commitments already made by the main parties, which, as big as they are, are still woefully inadequate to deal with the growing healthcare crisis. In October, a comprehensive investigation into healthcare led by NHS England concluded that, even if operational efficiencies are achieved, the NHS will face an £8bn spending shortfall in each year of the next Parliament. However, none of the main political parties has promised to meet this shortfall:
• The Conservatives are promising extra funding worth £2bn a year
• Labour has promised to spend £2.5bn a year on top of what the Conservatives are promising, thought not until year two of the next Parliament at the earliest'
• The Liberal Democrats are initially promising £1bn a year extra on top of the Conservatives' pledge, and to raise spending to £8bn a year extra by 2020 – but only if the UK's structural deficit has been repaid by then
If the answers to the NHS's problems are not to be found in the spending commitments each party feels obliged to make, neither does the solution lie in the structural reform of healthcare provision. Last week, independent charity, The King's Fund, warned that the coalition Government's restructuring of the NHS in 2013 cost billions of pounds that could have been spent on patients and wasted the time of healthcare professionals who would otherwise have been engaged in frontline treatment and care.
"The pressure on the NHS has been phenomenal for some time," added McMahon. "But an ageing population, steady rise in non-communicable diseases and self-inflicted health issues like obesity, means it is fast becoming unbearable. The only way to save it is with a complete change in direction. As well as being a source of unimaginable new intelligence, wearable tech can act as a real-time, nationwide 'triage', injecting radical efficiency into the healthcare system — but where's the mention of it in the election pledges of the three main parties?"
McMahon urged policymakers to consider two key areas that have the potential to transform healthcare.
1. Wearable tech. Research suggests lifestyle changes alone could mitigate 80% of the risk factors associated with serious, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, chest and heart disease. With this in mind, the growing number of wearable devices such as fitness bracelets can provide people with constant feedback on the extent to which their lifestyle is reducing the likelihood of contracting such diseases. For people already suffering from NCDs, they can also give healthcare professionals advanced notice of deterioration or serious illness. Investment in the 'quantified self' and the idea of 'self care' has the power to generate huge improvements in health and wellbeing, and a subsequent massive reduction in the pressure on the NHS.
2. Data sharing. While the data provided through wearable tech is opening up a whole new era for the healthcare sector globally, this data will be further enriched by being fed into 'data ecosystems' that contain the anonymised data of more conventional healthcare players, too — from hospitals, GP surgeries and research laboratories to pharmaceuticals companies and health charities. Data is at its richest when placed into related context, and to this end healthcare players must overcome the psychological barrier of sharing their data for the greater good. Sharing, Anomaly42 argues, is Caring.
"When I hear politicians boasting about how they'll spend a few pennies more than their rivals, I despair," said McMahon. "None of them will be able to commit anywhere near enough money to save the NHS. The only way to do so is via a technology-based approach that leverages the vast value tied up in the healthcare sector's data – from the data being generated in real time by wearable devices to the data being collected in a much more analogue fashion by a local GP. But on the technology front, sadly, the three main parties are still firmly rooted in the 20th century."