Virtual Hospitals – the NHS’ future

Professor Nick Bosanquet – a director of the centre-right think tank Reform ruffled a number of feathers at the end of last year when he stated that the NHS would do well to invest in virtual infrastructure.  The core of his argument is that patients should send their data to the hospital for diagnosis rather than turning up themselves to be measured.  We couldn’t agree more.

It’s surprising that it had the effect that it did.  For several years everyone within the health service has known that it is heading for bankruptcy, as is every other health service in the world.  We’re getting older – by 2010 over 40% of Europeans will be aged over 50, which means that the number of people in work paying taxes to support the growing bulk of the population (in all of its senses) is becoming an intractable problem. 

The solution is generally agreed to be more remote monitoring of patients to try and keep them out of hospital.  However much we bang that drum, the message is largely ignored.  What has engaged the attention of the media is the modest proposal that this means we may need to build fewer hospitals or that we’re building the wrong sort.

I personally think that Professor Bosanquet’s proposal stops far short of where we need to be.  We certainly should not be building as many hospitals – we should concentrate on keeping people out of them.  That goes beyond texting in your symptoms when you’re feeling ill to providing engaging and compelling applications that help to prevent us developing chronic diseases.

There is an immense potential for the mobile industry to engage in this, by helping to enable personal, mobile health applications.  A few days ago, the King’s Fund came to a similar conclusion about healthcare, urging the NHS to incorporate more technology.  We’re at the stage where we expect to interact with service providers.  When we buy online, companies make intelligent use of our purchasing and browsing data to give recommendations.  They start to learn our behaviour.  It’s time for the NHS to take the same steps.  eHealth is all about collecting data as unobtrusively as possible and then using it to make intelligent predications that keep us healthy.  It means we move from being treated solely as cogs in the machine to being given responsibility.

It will be ironic if it is the use of the bricks and mortar argument is what finally makes people sit up and join the debate.  After all, change needs to be about tangibles, and the physical reality of a new hospital is certainly that.  But if it does target things moving, it’s all for the better.  The mobile industry is possibly the last chance to prevent the NHS going bankrupt and it needs to be spurred into action.  The UK is an excellent testing ground for developing these applications.  Let’s get behind the debate to persuade everyone that there is a better way to healthcare.