The NHS is at a critical point in its 71-year history. Faced with an ageing population, where chronic conditions are on the rise, deep financial pressures and a stretched workforce, it must radically rethink and reshape how it delivers care if it is to be suitably equipped for the next generation of patients.
Step forward then, the NHS Long-Term Plan (LTP). Published in January, commentators have described it as the most important piece of health policy to come out in living memory.
What does the Long-Term Plan set out to do?
The LTP sets out a vision for the service over the next decade. It builds on the lessons learnt from previous flagship plans, most notably the Five-Year Forward View (FYFV), which detailed the need to integrate care across the service to meet the demands of our changing population via a series of new care models.
Successes from the FYFV frame the LTP and there is now a clear shift away from competition in the market towards collaboration. A welcome step for the many manufacturers and suppliers of health technologies (healthtech) that have historically found navigating the NHS a real challenge. Traditional budgetary silos, based on short-term savings, have provided little scope for compressive investment, as well as the adoption and spread of proven technologies.
In what is the world’s largest single payer health system, there is no recognised individual “front door” to the NHS. Simplifying this landscape for the companies developing syringes and wound dressings, surgical robots and digitally enhanced technologies, is critical if we are to tackle challenges collectively. A clear vision for the system that filters down to local level, therefore, is vital.
Importantly, the LTP balances practical realities, such as financial pressures and reducing inappropriate admissions to accident and emergency, with a future vision that requires the NHS to be fully digitised by 2024. There are huge opportunities, therefore, for companies willing to support these objectives.
How tech and data are integrated into the Long-Term Plan
Patients will be supported to manage their own chronic conditions, keeping small problems in the home. Monitoring systems, powered by real-time data, will allow medical professionals to spot changes or new trends that require immediate attention. Wearable devices and apps, from equipment that monitors heart rate and blood pressure, to programmes that can track calorie intake and exercise, will be vital to predicting and preventing events that would otherwise have led to hospital admission.
Alongside a clear focus on prevention, clinical priorities have been identified due to their impact on population health and where outcomes fall behind our global counterparts. These include areas such cancer, stroke, diabetes and mental health.
A bold target has been set for the NHS to diagnose 75 per cent of cancers at stage one or two by 2028. This is a defined opportunity for the UK’s diagnostic community to engage with the NHS, with quicker, more accurate diagnosis, through the likes of advanced imaging, critical to improving outcomes.
With prevalence of strokes set to rise, specialised units will be expanded and there is a target to increase dramatically the number of mechanical thrombectomies. A doubling of the enrolment in the NHS type-2 diabetes prevention programme is another example of its scope. Parity between physical and mental health is significant too, with commitment to improving mental health services through increased funding, versus the NHS as a whole, an important and necessary move.
How social care will integrate into all this remains to be seen and workforce challenges will also need significant attention. Nevertheless, the LTP provides reasons to be cheerful. Its scope and long-termism are not to be taken likely. National leaders deserve credit for targeting measurable improvements in health outcomes, and there are clear, defined areas where healthtech companies can engage with and support the plan’s vision.