Alan Mak: Yorkshire can build digital apps to put NHS at your fingertips

YORKSHIRE has one of the largest digital economies outside London, with Leeds in particular establishing itself as one of the UK's brightest and fastest growing tech hubs.

The NHS needs to make the most of digital technology and Alan Mak MP sets out the case.
The NHS needs to make the most of digital technology and Alan Mak MP sets out the case.

From media giant Sky Betting & Gaming to Rockstar Games, the company behind the hit video game series Grand Theft Auto, the city has been attracting investment and some of the brightest tech minds from across the north of England.

Those skills are permeating into all tech sectors, including the burgeoning healthtech sector, with 22 per cent of the UK’s digital health jobs based in Leeds. That includes the headquarters of NHS Digital, the organisation charged with bringing all parts of our health service into the 21st century.

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While many GP surgeries are now beginning to offer online services, pagers and fax machines are still commonplace in many hospitals. Patients want a digital health service, and we need to build a system as easy to use as Amazon or Netflix, with all key services accessible from the comfort of a sofa. The development of an NHS App is key – and developers based in Leeds will play a pivotal role delivering the Health Secretary’s vision of a digital NHS.

As I argued in a report which was published by the think-tank Centre for Policy Studies earlier this month, this new app has to be able to bring together the wide range of NHS digital services and provide patients with instant access to medical data and health services.

This app – I’ve proposed naming it “NHS NOW” – should be a “one stop shop” allowing patients across England to book an appointment, see their progress through the system, order repeat medications, control access to data, or seek advice on medical problems through NHS Direct. By logging on to the NHS NOW app, the patient would all their healthcare data at their fingertips.

Doctors and nurses could use the app to track patients, ensure that medication is been correctly administered, meet waiting time targets, and facilitate the upgrade towards a smart hospital system. The long-term vision should be smart NHS systems delivering personalised medication, treatments and advice.

Not only would this app-based system offer NHS patients and doctors an integrated platform in which they can simplify care, substantial amounts of money can be saved by eliminating postage and paper. The NHS estimates that up £200m a year is spent just on printing for the 120 million outpatient appointments that take place, a figure which does not even include the cost of postage. Nor does it account for therapy, diagnostics, primary care and mental health appointments or patients who receive multiple letters.

Likewise, many hospital appointments are also cancelled or postponed at short notice when additional information is required prior to an appointment – often due to a document that needs to be faxed from a GP. This process means wasted consultant fees, extra appointments and longer waiting lists. Last year it was estimated that almost £1bn is being wasted annually by patients missing 8 million appointments. The money wasted could fund one million more cataract operations or 250,000 hip replacements.

NHS Digital also needs to work to verify the development of third party health apps which have boomed in recent years. There are 325,000 healthcare apps available on the main app stores worldwide, and an estimated 3.7 billion app downloads were downloaded in 2017 alone.

This multi-billion-pound industry is rapidly expanding, with apps that monitor blood pressure, calculate insulin doses for diabetics and diagnose conditions to name but a few.

With this rapidly expanding industry, it’s vital that the NHS works to reassure patients which products are safe to use or are NHS approved. While the NHS does currently have an app library, realistically most patients will always download health-related apps straight from either the Android Play Store or the Apple App Store.

The best way to quickly and effectively ensure that all patients know if an app is NHS backed would be to place an NHS kitemark logo on approved apps.

App developers offering services that can manage conditions, deliver personalised medicine or encourage healthier life choices should all be encouraged to apply for NHS certification – as would those built out using the framework from the core NHS NOW app.

With a digitally-focussed culture, the tech revolution in healthcare provides the perfect platform for the NHS to renew itself as it looks to the future in its 70th anniversary year.

While much of that responsibility falls to skilled NHS Digital staff based in Yorkshire, with a heritage of innovation and a pool of world-class talent, I have every confidence in the region’s ability to deliver an NHS fit for the future.

Alan Mak is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Havant. Born in York, his report, Powerful Patients, Paperless Systems: How new technology can renew the NHS, has been published by the Centre for Policy Studies.