Chris Hudson, director of access and innovation, Roche Diagnostics UK and Ireland, examines the Labor Party’s views on the NHS, and how technology should play a part in the future of healthcare.
Sir Keir Starmer’s speech this week shows what the Labor Government’s vision could look like. Regardless of who wins the next election, it provides a timely opportunity to consider what the next Government should prioritize.
First, there needs to be a greater focus on past data, which is essential to future proofing our NHS as we look to tackle the combined challenges of aging and financial problems. We must ensure that the NHS is National Health Service not National Getting sick Service, and early intervention to provide rapid and accurate diagnosis and ultimately, better outcomes and quality of life for patients.
But to do this we need to remove the barriers that currently exist, encourage innovation and create an environment that supports and promotes the life sciences sector. For example, we know that many diagnostic tests can take years to be rolled out across the NHS, even if approved by NICE – as was the case with the PlGF test for women suspected of having pre-eclampsia. Innovation is only beneficial if it reaches the patients who need it.
It is also important for patients to be able to access, and therefore benefit from, the new information when it is adopted. Sir Keir is promising to speed up access to tests in his new plans and says he wants people to be able to count directly to regular check-ups and ensure 99% of patients wait no more than six weeks for a test from referral. This should be the goal of everyone in government and be embraced by the industry.
This brings me to my next point. Any future government should focus on tackling health inequalities and ensure that access to essential tests and care should be equal for everyone. There are examples of patients in the UK being given a simple blood test by their GP, while their neighbors in the next postcode are sent straight to an expensive echocardiogram in secondary care, which can take extra time and money. It is interesting that Sir Keir has mentioned heart disease as a priority, saying that his target is to reduce the disease by 25% in ten years. In the beginning, effective research can help with this.
When we hear politicians talk about the future of health care, there’s always the fear that they’re going to overdo it and mention the ‘R’ word – reform. I’m not sure what the NHS wants at the moment and it’s a big change. I think what’s needed is a range of interventions to help it recover – and a straightforward, systematic approach to diagnosis should be one of those interventions.
Therefore, let’s continue to develop a better care system that fits the entire patient process. We hear again and again that organizational and budget constraints mean that patients are missing out on access to disease that could prevent disease or improve outcomes through early intervention. The development of Integrated Care Systems offers a real opportunity to use the methods of improving health and care, and we encourage everyone who wins the next election to continue working in this area. There is nothing more frustrating than hearing that innovations are not being used because cost savings and better patient outcomes are being achieved in another area of healthcare.
Finally, promoting all of these needs to be a comprehensive, long-term strategy for our health care system. Without enough doctors, nurses, medical specialists and radiologists, the NHS cannot function, and we cannot deal with these challenges. Encouraging new recruits – and developing existing ones to be ready to work in new ways – will be essential. Sir Keir highlights the importance of embracing digital, and the transformative potential of artificial intelligence (AI), citing the example of lung cancer, which can be detected more quickly by AI and with a reduced chance of misdiagnosis of up to 60%. This is promising, but we must remember that for this type of innovation to deliver real results, NHS staff need the right skills to deliver.
The NHS is facing some major challenges right now and the need for services continues to grow as people live longer and more complex lives. Focusing on early detection now can help improve future medical care, help patients manage their symptoms and, in many cases, delay invasive and expensive medical treatments. During this pandemic we saw what can be done when we put egos aside, play hard and pull together. So why don’t we continue in this direction and work together to support the recovery of the NHS for those who need it now and secure its future for generations to come?