The first thing worth noting is the sheer volume of individuals now using digital healthcare technology to assist them with their regular healthcare needs. By the end of 2021 there were, for instance, more than 22 million active users of the NHS App.
In July 2021, the NHS reported that more than 50,000 people had registered organ donor preferences on the app during June while more than 600,000 prescriptions and 50,000 GP appointments were requested. While patients were actively prompted to use the digital platform, it could be said that the British public have actually become more accepting of technology’s place in their healthcare, and so now is the time to implement more.
In one scheme in Northwest London cited in the BMJ ‘wearables’ were used during the pandemic to analyse the condition of people who were quarantining before or after travelling abroad alongside healthcare workers who weren’t able to isolate at home. The scheme “collected the vital signs of people quarantining and round-the-clock data was monitored by a trained team.”
The technology involved varied. “Medical grade wearables can be as simple as a sensor that measures a single variable, such as a photoplethysmography. Others are more complex pieces of hardware worn around the arm or as a patch on the chest, that gather a selection of vital signs, with information typically relayed to clinicians for monitoring or analysis.”
The scheme was able to reduce the strain on the healthcare sector by limiting otherwise unavoidable transmission of COVID-19 and reducing contact between health staff and potentially infectious patients, thereby also reducing the use of PPE, which reached dangerously low levels in the early months of the pandemic due to ongoing issues with supply chain and manufacturing.
In many respects, the scheme was a roaring success and emphasised just how much wearable technology has to offer an incredibly stretched healthcare provider.
Pritesh Mistry, Policy Team at The King’s Find, added: “Wearable devices can give a level of reassurance when people are being treated remotely that they’re not in danger.”
Perhaps the biggest stand-out feature of these devices is their ability to measure, record, and analyse round the clock and alert medical professionals when signs of concern or danger are reached.
Back in 2019 the NHS released the “Long Term Plan” which highlighted the healthcare service’s vision to implement digital devices across the board in a bid to limit hospital admissions and protect and reassure those who are being cared for remotely.
It also gave a view to the different types of NHS contracts suppliers can go on to win.
At present, the use of wearable devices remains minimal and is limited to certain areas of the country, perhaps because introducing such rapid developments during a period of such catastrophic turbulence as the pandemic would have been almost impossible. However, as we navigate the period ahead when it is clear that there will be continuing strain on the NHS, particularly hospitals, as they try to catch up with the backlog of procedures delayed by the pandemic whilst also dealing with intermittent COVID surges and exhausted staff, perhaps now is the best time to invest in options that will limit the strain on personnel and services.
A January 2019 report by the National Audit Office on NHS financial sustainability concluded that:
“The growth in waiting lists, the slippage in waiting times and the existence of substantial deficits in some parts of the system, offset by surpluses elsewhere, do not add up to a picture that we could describe as sustainable.”
The rapid introduction of wearable devices could reduce the need for routine and follow-up appointments while providing patients with reassurance that their condition is both stable and monitored, thereby enabling NHS resources to be focused on reducing waiting lists and providing urgent services.
It remains to be seen when and how the major introduction of wearable tech to the British healthcare system will occur. However, we are fairly confident its arrival will be in the not-too-distant future. With this arrival comes a rise in opportunity for a host of tech and software providers who are able to fulfil what are likely soon to be important NHS contracts.
Written for GHP