Innovative for its time, the trusty fax machine was for many decades a mainstay of office life. Across the NHS, just like every other organisation, it became a vital means of communication between hospitals, GP surgeries, care homes and pharmacies. Yet as computers and emails – and then mobiles and messaging platforms like WhatsApp – took over in the workplace, the fax machine became an obsolete dinosaur, gathering dust in store cupboards.
But while the world moved on in the Noughties, New Labour’s failed IT projects meant the NHS remained the world’s biggest user of fax machines, much to the frustration of many within the health service. Former NHS IT boss Tim Kelsey even proclaimed he wanted to bonfire the fax machine.
Fax machines were often perplexing for a new generation of doctors for whom it was an unfamiliar relic from the past. To be fair, Britain was not alone: ‘I had zero context for how to make it work,’ said one Millennial junior doctor in America when facing the prospect of using a fax machine for the first time. The difference, in Britain at least, is we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the NHS’s technology and productivity.
As the NHS looks towards its next 70 years, we need to use some of the £20billion annual funding boost secured by outgoing Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to put in place a digital-first system, offering cradle to grave healthcare that can be accessed anywhere and anytime.
By doing so we can consign to history Blair and Brown’s toxic legacy of failed top-down investment into new technology, which left a long tail of inefficiency that the current Government has spent the last eight years rectifying. Developing a powerful system of digital patient records through the NHS Spine, AI-powered clinical decision tools improving diagnostics and barcodes in hospitals to improve patient safety are just a few of Hunt’s notable tech achievements during his time in office.
However, tapping into the vast potential of new technology means going beyond funding alone, and requires a significant culture change, one where innovation becomes the central focus of NHS bosses.
That’s the argument I made in my report published by the Centre for Policy Studies recently when I called for the NHS to ensure that 100 per cent of all interactions within the health service are digitally driven by 2028.
For example, a new comprehensive app – which I’ve christened NHS NOW – should be launched to ensure GP appointments, hospital visits, healthcare advice, NHS Direct, lifestyle tips and emergency services are all accessible digitally from one place. As a former Digital Minister who has always championed the tech industry, new Health Secretary Matt Hancock is in a strong position to build on this vision as the NHS continues the development of its first universal app – due to be released later this year. It would give the smartphone generation – and indeed older patients – the service they want whilst saving billions through efficiency.
Similarly, robotics are increasingly used in the NHS too, and greater automation could save close to £13billion a year – around 10 per cent of the NHS’s operational budget. This money should be ring fenced, with a clear commitment to put back every pound saved from back office automation into front line services.
Tomorrow’s technology-driven healthcare is already here: personalised medicine using genetic sequencing can target diseases with specialist drugs, while AI powered by Big Data can improve early detection of cancer. With a wealth of patient records, the NHS is better placed than any healthcare organisation in the world to take advantage of these changes. The Prime Minister predicted in a speech recently that harnessing these new Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies could mean 22,000 fewer people dying from cancer each year by 2033.
But for that to become a reality, the welcome long-term investment for the NHS should be digitally focused so that its productivity rises, and it fully harnesses the apps and new technologies that are already transforming other aspects of our lives. The first task on the agenda for the new Health Secretary should be ensuring we see a bonfire of the remaining Labour-era fax machines. Only then can we be sure that the NHS is truly fit for the future.