The world is changing. We know it. We read books on a Kindle, download films, order just about everything online. Everyone has, and is permanently attached to, a smartphone. The NHS and healthcare has so far remained relatively unscathed, unlike many other industries. But that is starting to change. What will the impact of technology be on general practice?
A number of new reports have come out recently, heralding the changes. One of these, The Promise of Healthtech by Public, describes the rising impact of digital innovators and technology on healthcare.
The report identifies 9 trends where there is significant growth in technological innovation, the areas the report describes as “low hanging fruit”: procurement and productivity; recruitment and training; prevention; winter pressures and supported self-care; Artificial Intelligence (AI) in pathology and radiology; patient safety; mental health; social care; and research. It then maps the growing number of tech start-ups against each of these trends
You may think the report is overstating the pace of change, in its desire to encourage more tech start-ups to follow suit. But I don’t think so, because at the same time the big technology firms, like Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, are all moving into healthcare. According to this article published in March in Vox, “The most proven, forward-thinking, and, dare I say, disruptive companies in our country have decided health care should be their next big move.” So whether it is the healthcare equivalent of Uber or Fitbit, or one (or more) of the more established tech companies, the current (relative) status quo is not going to last long.
Early stirrings are starting to have tremors through primary care. The GP at Hand service led to (mainly young) patients deregistering from their practice to sign up in London. Echo enables online ordering and delivery of prescriptions.
The Public report identifies numerous barriers that have slowed the introduction of technology: lack of clarity about the evidence; fast evolving regulation of digital health products; slow procurement; partial interoperability; unclear data security standards; and limited change management and digital skills. A quick reflection on the reaction to the introduction of GP at Hand within general practice and the size of these barriers becomes apparent.
I don’t think, however, these barriers will stop the tide of digital health development (disruption?) from coming in. Instead, overcoming them may well be the catalyst for greater and quicker advances. The use of blockchain looks set to empower individuals to control their own clinical records, as it can guarantee single ownership without requiring a central trusted authority, which in turn will start to shift power from the NHS as an institution into the hands of patients. The benefits of bringing together health and social media data, of enabling professional and community resources to interact effectively, is at the heart of the argument that is persuading Facebook to enter the health space.
General practice, sitting at the cusp between individuals managing their own health and accessing healthcare when they need it, is ripe for technological disruption. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled, Virtual Healthcare Could Save the US Billions Each Year outlined it was changes to primary care that could deliver these savings. It says, “Without expanding the primary care workforce, virtual health technologies can augment human activity, expand clinical capacity, and improve efficiency by ushering in a new health care model where machines and patients join doctors in the care delivery team.”
The independent contractor status of general practice means the barriers to entry are not as great as those that exist in the statutory NHS sector. Changes can happen rapidly in a small area and grow, without the need for national decision making. General practice has always prided itself on its ability to respond and act quickly.
The crisis engulfing general practice means the willingness to take risks is much higher than ever before. The incentive for a hospital within the NHS to take a risk on a new “carebnb” discharge option is simply not as great (given the potential for backlash) as for a practice facing financial hardship to try something new, however controversial.
Technology can help general practice become more efficient, but more importantly it can enable much stronger links between practices, their patients, and their local community. Shifting the demand curve is key to general practice emerging from its current predicament. The Public report, describing the trend for the development of technology in the area of prevention, states, “the need for digital solutions for wellness, supported self-care for patients with chronic conditions, AI driven behaviour change models and personalized patient education solutions is only going to increase.”
There is now an opportunity for general practice, given its current crisis, to reinvent itself as the supporter of communities and individuals to actively manage their own health, to act as a guide through the new environment as it evolves, and in doing so to make its own workload more manageable. The paternalistic “gatekeeper” role is unlikely to survive the changes that are coming, but the need for the expert generalist to empower, encourage and enable individuals and their decision making will be greater than ever.
The threat technological innovation presents is to the existing model of general practice. But given it is widely accepted that the current model of general practice is no longer sustainable, and in the absence of any meaningful investment in general practice, the opportunity technological innovation provides for general practice to reinvent itself seems to far outweigh the threat.