In the tantalisingly near future, hospitals could shake off financial shackles to become high temples of technology where informed patients glide along their treatment pathways.
The leaden-foot processes that stain UK hospital profiles will be banished by computerisation, advanced operating devices and even materials that repel hospital-acquired infection.
Clipboards, dog-eared files and scribbled notes will be rendered obsolete in a paperless environment where digital information – big data – is king.
A gleaming vision of the hospital of the future was recently unveiled by NXT Health, which constructed a prototype hospital room fit for the iPhone generation, full of gadgets and design features.
The big players in medical devices are also pushing change. Heart surgeons can now view and rotate a floating hologram of the organ they are operating on to aid complex procedures. The system, devised by Philips, is but one example of a suite of advances that seem more at home in movies such as Iron Man and Minority Report.
But the software and delivery of services will be as important as the glinting hardware in the way the hospital of the future is configured. Harnessing technology will revolutionise our relationship with hospitals and, crucially, offer savings that could insulate the NHS for generations to come.
Matching aspiration with capital spending will be a challenge, but savings are starting to look attractive and achievable.
“Whether you think digital provides an opportunity or a threat, it is coming anyway,” says Tim Wilson, a former GP and health industry partner at analysts PwC. “If the NHS embraces digital technology, our analysis is that it could make £4.4 billion of efficiency savings. Digital and data will be at the core of a more flexible and responsive healthcare system.”
The savings come from using big data to streamline process so that patients are not shunted between departments.
Computer portals, originally developed by the US Department of Defense to provide 360-degree information about agents in the field, offer clinicians and patients the ability to view X-rays, pathology and electronic patient records at an instant so they can make rapid and informed decisions.
An increasingly tech-aware society is digitally dexterous and demanding, and ready to influence their treatment, adds Dr Wilson. He points to an online GP service running in the UK that has one million users with an average age of 63, demonstrating the older generation is comfortable with technology.
“There is a real risk that if the healthcare system doesn’t embrace digital then the NHS could face being disenfranchised,” he says. “The people who can afford it will be using new digitally enabled private health providers and the NHS will be left with people who are too ill or can’t afford it.”
With technology and intelligent working, patients will not get sent to different places in the hospital and wait ten weeks for referrals and tests – it could and should be done in one go
Shahid Ali, professor of digital health at Salford University, is convinced a key function of the hospital of the future will be its ability to synchronise with community medicine.
“Technology is not the obstacle, cultural change is,” he says. “Patients are often bigger advocates of technology than clinicians. They do banking on the internet, have a smartphone and tablet use among the elderly is increasing substantially.
“There needs to be a change in the way clinicians work with patients, giving over some responsibility and control. The hospital of the future will recognise an individual’s needs and that will encourage greater patient responsibility.
“With technology and intelligent working, patients will not get sent to different places in the hospital and wait ten weeks for referrals and tests – it could and should be done in one go.
“You can actually use less money and improve care, but we need to create opportunities for innovation in the NHS,” says Professor Ali.
Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, which consists of four major hospitals and 44 satellite locations, underscores the potential with predictions that digital development could save it £4.4 million a year.
“If we continue with the same mindset, the NHS will go bankrupt,” adds Professor Ali. “But if we recognise that the world, people and culture is changing, and technology is out there, then the NHS has no problems at all – it can survive with flying colours.”
He feels the NHS needs to open itself to more collaboration with industry to reach the digital promised land.
“Industry has a lot to offer and there is a lot of UK-developed technology out there. We have new products so, why aren’t we giving them the opportunity? Partnerships should be easy to establish but, sadly, it is the reverse,” he says.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently qualified his ambition to have a paperless NHS by 2018 as the “maddest” political promise he’d made, but the intent is still there. Tellingly, he said: “The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution.”
The hospital of the future will be the proving ground and could generate a health revolution equal to its foundation in 1948.