Is the UK accelerating the shift to digital health?

  • Posted on 08.10.2019

Is the UK accelerating the shift to digital health?


Andrew Davies

Digital Health Lead at ABHI


Back in 2018 the UK signed up, alongside thirteen other nations[1], to the Global Digital Health Partnership (GDHP). This global network brings together governments, digital health agencies and the World Health Organization to support the use of digital technology in healthcare.

The UK is pushing hard to digitise the delivery and management of healthcare. Some surveys show promising results with the UK well into the top half the league tables, although lagging the leading group – not bad for a country of 60 million people, given that most of those above the UK have relatively small populations. 

The government claims the National Health Service (NHS) is currently undergoing the largest digital health transformation programme in the world, with investment of more than £1 billion a year nationally (plus more from local budgets). Recently, significant funding has been announced: £160m investment to develop new diagnostic tests using AI, £250m for a new “AI Lab”, and a further £130m for new tech to tackle key disease areas. So, it wouldn’t be hard to think that all the indicators are positive. Yet despite this investment, the NHS has been accused of living in the ‘dark ages’, and ‘lagging far behind other industries’ where ‘phenomenal leaps’ towards digitisation have happened. 

It’s easy to compare health to retail and banking and ask why the health system lags behind other sectors. I have done it myself. However, the comparison is, of course, not straightforward. This was a hot topic at a recent gathering with senior NHS representatives during which it was outlined that the duty the NHS has to ensure that inequalities are not introduced through digitisation, alongside the low tolerance to risk, have a braking effect on developments. 

Nonetheless, we need to shift how care is delivered. Through new modes of communication, this shift is both mirrored and enabled by the transition from experience-based medicine (the past) to evidence-based (the present) to analytics-based practice (the future). The progression to analytics-based practice is predicated on access to data and the realisation of its value. To maximise the value of the data, it needs to be accessible, well-curated, cleansed (with consistent taxonomy), timely and linked. 

Whilst the UK has some of the richest health data in the world, these datasets are fragmented and often unstructured, making it difficult to access and use for research purposes. To address this, seven ‘Digital Innovation Hubs’ have been established to provide and curate data, and offer services for research and innovation. 

I get a sense of change of pace that is quite unlike the NHS I am used to. Strong political will coupled with increased demand in the health and care system and reduced (in real terms) funding, is driving cultural and organisational change while the NHS strategic plan is underpinned by digitisation.   

Things are moving faster than is the norm in the NHS – but could it be even faster? Personally,I think it could be a “Fast and Furious” ride.

[1] Austria, Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, Italy, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden and the United States

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