Technology for sustainable health and social care

Our FORUM programme, which brings together audiences from across the across biomedical research to discuss topics of common interest, recently hosted its Annual Lecture on how technology can help create financially sustainable health and social care systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the frailties in current health and social care models. Their slow pace of change and the increasing need for their services as people spend more years in ill-health have been spotlighted by the pressures of the pandemic.

In the UK, the proportion of national income dedicated to healthcare increased through most of the previous century. But these challenges cannot be solved by funding alone: ever-increasing healthcare costs are not sustainable. This is where technology comes in.

The 2020 FORUM Annual Lecture focused on the role of technology and digital innovation in helping us care for more people, for better, for longer. Keynote speaker Professor John Rogers emphasised the value of technology for stretched healthcare professionals: not to replace nurses or doctors or their professional interactions with patients, but to free up their time from routine tasks and enable it to be used more effectively.

For instance, Professor Rogers has been building new , flexible data collection sensors. Because the sensors are robust, easy to wear and wireless, they can be worn outside the hospital to understand how illnesses impact people’s daily lives. Such non-invasive sensors are already valuable tools for neonatal doctors and nurses, helping them closely monitor and respond to the needs of premature babies. These sensors can also be made cheaply and so could support healthcare in remote or under-resources areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also boosted the uptake of existing technologies which previously were not widespread. For instance, the Babylon Health app has provided remote triage and consultations in the UK since 2013, yet its uptake has increased hugely this year as GPs have had to consult with patients virtually.

The panel of speakers at the 2020 FORUM Annual Lecture – Dr Pearse Keane, Dr Keith Grimes, and Dr Karyn Morrissey – also emphasised a range of key issues that technology will need to overcome before its value in this field can be truly realised.

Firstly, we need to work together to build and maintain strong systems for data collection and management. Such ‘big data’ is the fuel on which many of these new technologies rely, and its proper usage is vital. Secondly, not everyone can access these technologies, as they often rely on internet connections and confident use of devices, meaning such technologies could amplify, rather than reduce, health inequalities. And thirdly, organisations must engage with the public, because if technology is not trusted and accepted it will never be used, no matter how great its potential benefits.  

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the existing challenges within health and social care systems into the spotlight. But it has also created disruption and creative innovation and brought technology to the fore – which potentially could be the key to better patient care and more sustainable health and social care systems.  

The 2020 FORUM Annual Lecture was hosted virtually on Monday 12 October 2020. Recordings of all of the talks are available below through our YouTube channel. The full lecture report is available here  and can also be downloaded from the side of this page.

Find out more about our work connecting industry, the NHS and academia on our FORUM webpages and enquire about joining the FORUM through e-mailing forum@acmedsci.ac.uk

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