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How automation and tech could cure the crumbling NHS

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Professor Sir John Bell, Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine and an adviser to the Government, says that medical staff under huge pressure to meet targets can also be resistant to new technology because of fears it will go wrong and simply make things worse.

But he points to innovation that happened during the Covid pandemic, borne out of necessity, as proof that big changes can be made.

The health service, the Government, private sector and regulators came together to rapidly deploy mass testing systems and the vaccination rollout during the crisis, with rules that would have blocked easy information-sharing temporarily waved away by ministers.

It resulted in British authorities having a better analysis on the spread of the disease than almost any other government, Bell argues.

“People said we’re in a hurry, we’re going to get this stuff done quickly. I call it the burning platform mentality,” he adds.

“But now many barriers have reappeared and the speed at which stuff happens has become glacial again.”

Automation could make an enormous difference, he says, but the organization itself lacks the in-house expertise to develop the powerful, scalable software that is needed.

“I think it requires serious collaboration with the tech companies,” he adds. “Apple or Microsoft, or Oracle – they really get this stuff, they’ve got terrific software capabilities and they can make stuff that works.”

More futuristic solutions were also proffered in a 2018 report by Lord Darzi and the Institute for Public Policy Research, including the introduction of physical robots that stitch wounds, bring patients meals and porter them around buildings.

Pritesh Mistry, a fellow for digital technologies at the Kings Fund, says some of the most impactful changes may end up being mundane, rather than cutting-edge.

“The real low hanging fruit is things like reliability of systems, quicker devices and things like that,” Mistry says.

“Making sure the technology actually works through better IT support, so it doesn’t take up more staff time, doesn’t require them to be trained up or change their processes and workflows, that might be the easiest thing to do.”

Hardie agrees, saying that basic measures which ease pressures on staff could then free up time for them to start thinking about further efficiencies.

“A lot of healthcare staff are exhausted and overstretched, not just because of Covid-19, but also because there’s a significant number of vacancies,” he says.

“So technology, if we get it right, might be able to support them to work in a more sustainable way.”

If it comes to pass, Sunak’s vision for a tech-empowered health service will be more akin to a Microsoft Office update than the arrival of Dr Terminator.