It’s my first time traveling to Manchester, and despite the 5-hour coach ride on a stuffy Megabus, I’m looking forward to it. This isn’t just because my whole existence revolves around London and I desperately need an escape, or because ‘The North’ is somewhat mysterious to me, but because I have managed to secure free tickets to the biggest NHS event of the year: the annual Health and Innovation Expo.
On arrival, I find my way to Manchester Central, just opposite the grand Milibank Hotel. Aqsa (my Mancunian HumSci buddy) is waiting for me, ready to explore the conference. Having recently completed an internship at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, she informs me that the city is at the forefront of health technologies in the UK, and it is no coincidence that this is where the expo is. I am excited.
A Data Revolution: ‘21st Century Health is Digital…We Need to Monitor Patients in the Way they Really Live’
When it comes to healthcare reforms there is one overarching question: How do we improve quality and productivity in the light of rising costs and increasing demand (such as the demographic pressures of an ageing society)? The answer to this is innovation, and it is the essence of the NHS’ Five Year Forward View to redesign care.
The first thing I learnt is that health innovation and digital health are not limited to harnessing large collections of data and storing medical records; they involve much more technical analysis of these insights, using analytics from whole populations to provide personalised healthcare. They empower patients so they can engage actively with the NHS and shape the services they use.
According to Sir Michael Grant, the chair of NHS England, the work done so far has increased precision so much that we now identify 50 distinct types of diabetes. Dementia and obesity are two other key areas of concern that will benefit from health informatics.
750 working hours are currently saved by the NHS everyday due to digital health, and this figure will certainly grow.
George Freeman, Minister of Life Sciences, stressed the economic benefits that the UK could receive from health innovation. These benefits are not only in terms of time and cost savings, but include an increase in the global competitiveness of the UK. Innovation is the only way that we can adapt to a globalised and technological world, instead of relying on other countries to produce expensive health products for us to purchase.
This is why £650,000 is being invested into mental health technologies. These technologies can be revolutionary for the workforce, in the same way that the invention of spectacles added 15 years to the working lives of the population. £650,000 sounded like a large sum when George Freeman said it, although I am dubious; would £650,000 really be enough to undermine the large cuts that are being made to the mental health budget? Furthermore, Mr Freeman didn’t mention over what period this investment would be given.
Regardless, digital health is a rapidly growing sector; right now only 2% of smartphone users in the UK are using apps to engage with the NHS, but it will be the norm in the near future.
Whilst health innovation can be beneficial and reduce health inequalities within the UK (by increasing transparency and allowing specialists to target specific groups or regions), the global implications may not be as positive. As we tend towards personalised healthcare, Aqsa points out, developing countries that are importers of medicine will lose out. The drugs developed in the West and Far East may not be as effective on people native to other regions, as these people will not be seen as profitable and so may not be taken into account by pharmaceutical companies/ researchers.
The biggest issue with digital health however, lies with safeguarding and maintaining confidentiality.
My Top 3 Health Innovations from the Expo:
SH:24 is a confidential online sexual health service for residents of Southwark and Lambeth. As well as offering educational materials, they post free STI testing kits that detect gonorrhoea, syphilis, HIV and chlamydia directly to their users, with results and consultations given over the phone in just one week. This is all done without you having to visit a clinic, which is not only convenient for users but also for NHS staff who tend to be overworked.
The service is particularly useful for people who are too busy or shy to visit a sexual health clinic, as well as at-risk groups such as young adults, ethnic minorities and men who have sex with men.
My only concern with this much-needed service is to do with the confidentiality aspect; If someone wanted to keep their results personal, the last thing they would want is it popping up on their phone screen in the form of a text. The method is also very prone to human error, and brings to mind the unfortunate blunder at a Soho clinic earlier on this week. Perhaps it would be better to provide users with a secure link that they can use to log on to access their results.
On a similar note, this type of service might increase stigma on STIs, as it forces them to become secretive and hidden from the general public/ general conversations. It may result in sexual health problems being treated as something that individuals need to address personally in the confines of their homes, further shaming patients.
SH:24 has great potential, although we need such services all over the country, people need to know they exist, and there has to be a balance between confidentiality and convenience whilst positively influencing attitudes on sexual health.
This one only misses out on the top spot since it is not particularly relevant to young people, although it is the definition of innovative. It is simple, effective, and frankly mind-blowing.
Granulox Haemoglobin Spray accelerates the healing process of chronic wounds, as it addresses the problem of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), thus promoting healthy metabolism. Wounds that would normally take months to heal are shown to have visible improvements in a matter of days, simply by increasing the amount of available oxygen.
One downside I can think of is to do with the use of porcine (pig) blood, which some patients may object to, due to religious reasons or the possibility of contracting communicable diseases. Granulox however, do stress that the products are tested and sterile.
Such an innovation should also be complemented with the management of chronic pain, which many people live with and tolerate. Care of wounds should be more than superficial, and I hope that this innovation does not mask the treatment of deeper pains.
Sugar3 (sugar cubed) is a self-care website and app for 9-19 year olds with type 1 diabetes, set up by the Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust (PCNFT). It is a great example of how health innovation can be used to empower patients (especially those with long-term conditions), as it enables the young people to educate themselves and take control over their healthcare in a way that integrates easily into their lifestyles.
The site/app not only offers short interactive educational videos, but also allows the patients to track their blood sugar levels, with those statistics being instantly shared with their nurses. The collected data gives a clear picture of a patient’s health over time, which means that healthcare workers can quickly intervene in the case of any changes, so they are able to target their efforts to those who need it the most. Patients can also set up Skype appointments with nurses at their convenience, instead of having to wait at a clinic.
Essentially, Sugar3 is ingenious as it provides a complete care package within one clear interface, giving the user autonomy. It is much more efficient than patients having to go back and forth between specialists. I also can’t get over the app’s name.
PCNFT are currently developing a similar app for people with asthma.
Not featured at the NHS Expo – MindMate, an app for people living with dementia (which my brother’s friend helped set up), is also worth looking at.
The on-going 100K Genome Project will also be a leading force in the future of personalised medicines to treat rare diseases and cancers.
Let us know what you think of these health innovations, as well as any others you may have heard of. For more on Health Innovation, follow @PillsnPolicies to receive updates from the Paris WHO conference later on this month!