Imagine a world in which healthcare can prevent disease.

It’s a world that is actually within our grasp. And the key to it is centralising health data to enable the use of emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Predictive Analytics.

Using such cutting-edge tech would enable accurate predictions on the extensive data we’ve captured over many years. Which in turn would catch these ailments in their early stages or even before symptoms start to manifest.

Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, is intent on making the NHS a world leader in AI and ML within 5 years. The main objective is to use technologies that could ease the burden on staff and cut waiting times for patients, but the opportunities extend far beyond that.

Data is increasingly valuable on a global level, data-sharing models are becoming commonplace in different industries, giving birth to digital ecosystems that are home to flows of abundant data.

Empowered staff, quick treatment, and on-the-spot diagnoses. These are the characteristics of the future NHS. By equipping staff members with tablets and phones, data-sharing can be streamlined and patient care delivered more efficiently. What’s more, abundant health data will accelerate the decision-making and diagnostic process, transforming our healthcare system from reactive to proactive.


The present-day nhs

The NHS has been successfully providing free healthcare to the UK for just over seventy years. For a large part of the new millennium, database applications have played a major role in its success, allowing disparate organisations within the NHS to connect and enabling staff to treat patients on a day-to-day basis.

At present, however, these databases are not fit for purpose. Legacy IT systems both expose the NHS to potential cyber-attacks and hinder the development of efficient HealthTech.

This IT delay isn’t surprising, the NHS has always had some trouble with setting up and maintaining proper IT systems. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the healthcare service decided to spend considerable amounts of money on failed IT projects and continued to do so until 2001, when they signed a contract with Microsoft for Windows XP. Later, support for Windows XP ended and the NHS struggled to update to a newer version. This disregard for innovation left the NHS powerless during the global ransomware attack of 2017, WannaCry, which cost the healthcare system £92 Million and proved that outdated systems pose a serious threat to security.


It’s a risky game

A recent white paper, written by researchers at Imperial College London and presented at the House of Lords at the start of July, suggests that outdated computers are one of the most significant factors placing NHS hospitals at risk.

Moreover, the aforementioned technologies cannot be used if the data isn’t centralised and organised in the appropriate way, which is impossible if the databases are built on outdated systems.

Another deal-breaker is the higher price of maintaining legacy systems, as stated by Kevin Cunnington, director general at GDS.

The NHS now finds itself in an unfavourable position. One million PCs must be updated before Microsoft stops offering Windows 7 support in January 2020 – that’s just over 3/4 of all NHS computers.

Overhauling IT legacy systems and innovating database applications is a long and costly process that weighs on the healthcare system’s wallet, especially considering the recent financial challenges that it has been facing.


Is there a way to tackle what’s standing between us and our future, quickly?

What do we need to invent or create to tackle this issue? As it turns out, not much. By combining already-existing technologies, we could automate the whole upgrading process.

Automating the system update would reduce upgrade costs by as much as 60-70%, allowing the NHS to direct much-needed funds to front-line care. Furthermore, the speed with which automation can complete the updating process – currently being executed manually – is crucial, given the extreme delay.


Prospects for the future

The wider expected impacts on the business are not insubstantial – fewer security breaches and cutting costs are not the only advantages. One of the most significant impacts are improved end-user services due to faster booking and screening times, something that was highlighted in the National Audit Office report from February 2019.

There is also a possibility of accelerated R&D processes, including the ability to find disease cures more quickly. Given that the NHS works on a national scale, the social impacts will be far-reaching.

It is crucial to future-proof our NHS. Every year there is an increase in demand, which the NHS simply cannot meet due to funding constraints and workforce shortage.

Technology will cut costs and ensure efficiency, protecting the existence of the health service in the years to come. Then the NHS will make the leap to not just simply survive but to thrive, propelling us into an age characterised by a vibrant health economy.