NHS must embrace Information Age – leader comment

Amazon's Alexa is to provide NHS health advice (Picture: David Parry/PA Wire)
Amazon's Alexa is to provide NHS health advice (Picture: David Parry/PA Wire)
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The NHS must make greater use of information technology to help cope with rising demands for its services.

As a vast state-run service, the NHS enjoys a number of benefits.

One reason why health spending, as a proportion of GDP, is lower here than in many countries is the resulting economies of scale. In the US, the total spent on healthcare, private and public, was 17.2 per cent of GDP in 2016, compared with just 9.7 per cent in the UK.

However, the size of the NHS also has downsides, particularly when considering major changes. A small organisation is nimble, able to adapt to changing circumstances quickly, a large one must be more careful and so if a system works, it can be easier – and, indeed, safer – to stick with it even if there is a better alternative.

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This is partly why postal services, paper and pen still play a significant role in the NHS at a time when communication elsewhere has largely moved online. There is also no real pressure from a rival health service that forces the NHS to adapt, with private firms operating in a rather different market.

So the news that Amazon’s Alexa will answer people’s health concerns by searching the official NHS website is hugely welcome. Rising demands from the public have put the NHS under severe pressure – as have numerous websites offering misguided, bogus and sometimes even malicious health tips. The ability of the ‘worried well’ to quickly and easily access the best health advice should help alleviate at least some of that pressure.

Scotland’s ‘Digital Health and Care Strategy’ recognises the potential. “The opportunities presented by digital to truly empower people and put them in control of their own health and well-being are immense. So too are the opportunities to significantly reduce complexity, open up access to information ... and support effective evidence-based decision making by frontline professionals,” it says. But more needs to be done to realise this potential. Anyone in Scotland attempting the access the ‘NHS App’, which enables patients to book GP appointments, check symptoms and view their medical records, will be disappointed. It is an England-only initiative.

Not everyone has Alexa, but its use in this way is a step closer towards the future of healthcare. The Information Age is so called because of the astonishing power of computers to handle vast amounts of data. With the NHS struggling to cope with the sheer quantity of requests for its help – or its ‘information’ – the solution seems obvious.