As we celebrate #NHS75, chief executive Richard Stubbs reflects on the great advancements and medical progresses of the NHS over the past seven decades and explains how spread and adoption of innovation is the key to achieving equitable, available and accessible health and care for all.
As the NHS marks its 75th birthday this week, we can reflect on the past seven decades and feel proud of the ground-breaking advancements in the NHS that have transformed healthcare for our population. From technological breakthroughs to novel approaches in patient care, the NHS’s commitment to innovation holds the key to ensuring its sustainability for the next 75 years.
To ensure our health service is equitable and accessible to the entirety of the population, innovation needs to be front and centre of how the NHS operates. So, how do we ensure innovation is the golden thread running throughout everything the NHS does? This question may feel merely theoretical or too far ahead in the future to contemplate, but historically, the NHS has always been great at invention. From its inception in 1948, the NHS spearheaded revolutionary advances such as the first CT scanner in the 1970s, which transformed diagnostic imaging and the introduction of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners in the 1980s, offering a non-invasive method to examine the human body in unprecedented detail. It played a pivotal role in Francis Crick and James Watson’s ground-breaking work on the structure of DNA laying the foundation for modern genetics and personalised medicine. As the NHS rose to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we again saw the power of innovation and technology which allowed patients to get help remotely, minimising the spread of infection. Virtual triage systems assessed patient needs, enabling faster access and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms began predicting disease trends, aiding decision making.
Looking back, cutting edge technology has always played a role in benefiting health outcomes of the population. In the context of our NHS today, with an ageing population and increased demand on a smaller workforce, it is more crucial than ever that we can lean on innovation to fill the gaps and ensure the NHS can thrive for the next 75 years.
The good news is that, in reality, many innovative solutions are already being implemented and adopted within the NHS. In our role as the Yorkshire & Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), we support the NHS to systematically identify and adopt innovative health and care solutions that reflect the diversity and needs of our local population. Yorkshire and the Humber is already a hotbed for digital and health innovation – creating jobs, building assets, and providing a blueprint for how healthcare will be delivered in the future. From the PinPoint blood test for cancer which uses machine-based learning to ensure we can see the right patients at the right time, to the web platform Digibete, designed to help people manage their diabetes. Large companies such as the Castleford-based Teva are printing affordable generic medicines to increase accessibility for all and MOTIONrehab opened the UK’s first Intensive Robotic Neurological Rehabilitation Centre in Leeds in 2018. Augmented with robotics and virtual reality, this technological innovation allows patients to practice high repetitions of movement and achieve better outcomes quicker than traditional hands-on therapy alone.
We know that these technological advancements needed for the future are already here, they are just not evenly distributed. The issue we need to address if we are to make healthcare equitable for all, is to ensure that every patient has access to these solutions no matter their geographical location. However, as we work to roll out innovative solutions across the country, we must remain mindful that digital transformation can widen healthcare inequalities if we do not consider equal access to digital care in the context of each region. Without doing this, we risk marginalising certain population groups and exacerbating health inequalities.
Collaboration at local, regional and national level is fundamental. An example of this is our work to support the adoption of Healthy.io’s smartphone-based urinalysis device to help identify the risk of chronic kidney disease in diabetic patients. We ran an initial pilot in West Yorkshire and now this solution is used nationally in more than 1,200 surgeries. Another example is how we helped pilot the implementation of remote monitoring solutions, a safe and efficient alternative to NHS bedded care, across more than 100 sites in our region, benefitting 4,289 patients.
While eradicating all diseases or preventing illness entirely may be ambitious goals, significant progress can be made. New technologies develop at an alarming rate, so who knows what advancements we will witness in health and care in the next 20 to 30 years? One thing we can be sure of is that the more we innovate, the more jobs we create, ultimately improving our region’s health and wealth, two sides of the same coin, something I touched on in a recent blog.
What will this conversation look like as the NHS reaches its 100th birthday? We are on the cusp of exciting break throughs such as minimally invasive surgical techniques, robotics entering mainstream use and the progression of virtual simulation for training. As we head towards NHS100 we need to continue to drive creative solutions for long-standing issues, improve efficiency of the workforce, empower patients with their own care, address disparities and foster collaborative working across the system.
This piece was originally published as an opinion column in the Yorkshire Post on 6 July 2023.