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Navigating the future of healthcare

By Hannah Green, Policy intern, Academy of Medical Sciences

Predicting the future is hard. But as a scientist, you not only need to predict the future problems faced by society but also identify ways to solve them. This is a daunting prospect for any early career researcher.

At the Academy’s career development event ‘Navigating the future of healthcare’ chaired by Professor Sanjeev Krishna FMedSci, senior biomedical researchers gave their insights to an audience of clinical and non-clinical early career researchers on the potential healthcare problems of the future and the innovative technologies and other developments aiming to solve these issues. They also gave advice on building a career in research and highlighted new career opportunities opening up in these areas.

The question of how to identify healthcare problems of the future is a challenging one, a topic the Academy has explored extensively in its ongoing project ‘Health of the public in 2040’.

This challenge was exemplified at the event by Professor Jimmy Whitworth FRCP FMedSci, who described how we have previously been extremely slow at identifying and responding to emerging infections. He went on to describe current and future efforts to improve this by strengthening national and international health regulators, in addition to the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to epidemic preparedness.

Professor Diana Kuh FFPH FMedSci described results from the 70 year longitudinal study she runs at the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which identified multiple interacting risk factors for disease. Overall these results identified critical risk periods during childhood and early adulthood and the need for early intervention to prevent disease later in life.

In order to prevent and treat some of these healthcare problems, new developments and technologies are emerging.

Professor Betty Kirkwood FMedSci highlighted the importance of combining biological and sociological evidence to effectively prevent disease. She illustrated this with an example from her own experience in Nigeria, where the combined efforts of improving water supplies and educating people about good hygiene behaviour reduced the incidence of child deaths from diarrhoea.

Professor Stephen Hyde described advances in gene therapy for the treatment of cystic fibrosis. He explained how changes to the treatment composition and delivery had improved its effectiveness and reduced any side-effects.

Dr Rowan Pritchard-Jones outlined his development of the ‘Mersey burns app’, a healthcare app that assists doctors in treating burns victims. Dr Pritchard-Jones highlighted some interesting regulatory considerations regarding the development of healthcare apps, some of which are outlined in the Academy’s FORUM report on the use of health apps.

Dr Sam Whitehouse and event Chair Professor Sanjeev Krishna FMedSci described the development of portable diagnostic devices that will rapidly and cheaply ensure the right medicines get to the right people.

This challenge was further explored by Professor Stephen Holgate CBE FMedSci in his talk on stratified medicine, a topic explored by the Academy’s stratified medicine report. Using asthma as an example, Professor Holgate extolled the virtues of stratified medicine in improving the effectiveness of treatments and reducing the costs to the health service.

Many of these advances have implications for the careers of future clinicians and medical researchers. For example, if portable diagnostics and healthcare apps become more widespread, the role of clinicians will undoubtedly change. Members of the audience pointed out that some clinicians could become de-skilled or even redundant. Of course it is unlikely that we will dispense with clinicians anytime soon, but it is evident that the skills required of future clinicians will change.

As well as changes to career paths, exciting new career opportunities were highlighted by Professor Whitworth. He outlined the introduction of multidisciplinary ‘UK Rapid Response Teams’ that will research and respond to disease outbreaks, and encouraged the early career researchers in attendance to investigate these opportunities further on the NIHR website.

Finally, the speakers gave advice for building a successful career in medical research. Many of the speakers highlighted the importance of collaboration for the success of their research careers. Professors Hyde and Kuh also highlighted the importance of maintaining a good relationship with research participants. Professor Kuh explained that positive interactions between researchers and experimental participants motivated both parties, improving the outcomes of the research. Most importantly, the speakers left the audience with one key message, not to forget that the most crucial outcome of their research is patient benefit.

The Academy would like to thank all participants and speakers for attending.

The Academy runs regular regional career development events for early to mid career biomedical researchers – find out more here.


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