The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for most organisations, large or small, and the NHS is no different. To overcome these challenges, the NHS has looked towards technology to help keep its hospitals running at capacity and continue to provide the standard of care we’ve come to expect.
Working at Vodafone, I’ve witnessed the digital transformation of the NHS first hand. During the pandemic, we worked with the NHS to increase the 4G network capacity at the temporary Nightingale hospitals, enabling staff and patients to stay in touch with their loved ones. We also helped double the capacity of calls to the NHS 111 telephone advice service, which had experienced a 400% surge in calls compared to the pre-pandemic peak.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technology in healthcare, this is just the beginning. Emerging technologies, such as IoT (Internet of Things) and the next generation of mobile technology – 5G – present exciting possibilities for the NHS and patients alike.
Change in public attitudes
There is a clear willingness from the public for innovation across the NHS. Vodafone recently released its “Better Health, Connected Health – How 5G and IoT Technology Can Transform Health and Social Care” report, which looks into the crucial role 5G and IoT technology can play to help transform health and social care. The research found that over 70% of respondents think the Government should invest in digital technology for the NHS.
The report also highlights key technologies that are important to the public, with 80% of respondents saying they would like to see 5G connected ambulances, and 60% believing that video consultations are more convenient than visiting a GP surgery or hospital in person. A similar proportion (57%) also support the continued use of medical appointments via video once the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Role of 5G in healthcare
The report demonstrates how strong public support actually is for the Government to increase investment in technology, and this investment can come in a number of ways.
One example is through the use of 5G connected ambulances. Paramedics nursing a patient in an ambulance would be connected to a hospital clinician using high-resolution video and tools that share the patient’s medical records, as well as live clinical data such as heart rate monitoring. Clinicians are then able to examine the patient remotely, assessing symptoms, performing initial diagnoses and prescribing urgent treatment. With such clear and visual data available in an instant, paramedics are able to carry out initial treatment of the patient well before they have arrived at the hospital, saving both time and lives.
5G’s high capacity and low latency benefits also mean surgeons can use technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) to provide remote expert guidance on surgery without needing to be in the same operating theatre, or even the same country. Using AR video feeds, a clinician’s hands can be superimposed on the patient’s anatomy to give guidance during the operation, even overlaying sketches and anatomical diagrams for reference.
Role of IoT in healthcare
IoT is an exciting area which has the potential to transform the way hospitals currently work, communicate and operate, both for patient interaction and behind the scenes.
IoT can be used to monitor drug inventory levels for example, managing resources and capacity, as well as helping locate equipment quickly in an emergency. Poor medical adherence is also an area where IoT can help, providing doctors and carers with an accurate measure of whether patients are correctly following their treatment schedules, as well as directly involving the patient to manage their own health.
IoT can also help with energy saving – monitoring how hospital spaces are occupied and ensure energy is only used where it is needed. Smart heating and ventilation systems will be able to determine whether a space Is occupied and therefore whether it needs to be cooled or heated, and when paired with motion sensors and smart lighting, IoT can guarantee that only occupied spaces are lit and at the correct levels. Taking it one step further, smart buildings can learn occupancy patterns and suggest how they can be optimised for both the staff’s comfort and energy efficiency. In hospitals, this would make a huge difference to how the buildings are used, how much is being spent, and help cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The call for investment
But for this to all happen, the Government needs to invest for the NHS’ future. The 40 new hospitals already committed to be built by 2030 should be designed to incorporate the very latest digital technology, such as 5G and IoT. By making the right investment decisions today – the report calls for an investment of £1.5bn – the Government will be able to bring 5G to every hospital across the country and encourage the creation of 5G healthcare applications through regional innovation centres. This will help the UK to become a global leader in the future of healthcare.
Only with this type of continued investment will we see our hospitals be properly protected to meet the many challenges of the future, moving with the times to create a digital-first approach that will benefit both patients, staff and taxpayers.