Authored article

How technology is working to support patients and staff

George Freeman, Minister for Life Sciences, reflects on the latest developments to treat blindness and working towards a paperless NHS.

With the new year upon us, there are 2 upcoming anniversaries that are foremost in my mind. The first is the 5 year anniversary of the launch of the original Life Sciences Strategy in 2011, where we set out our goal to make the UK the world leader in this space. With more than £3.5 billion of investment and around 11,000 jobs created in the sector since the launch of the strategy, so much has been achieved in the past 5 years. But I believe there is so much more to do.

The second anniversary foremost in my mind is the countdown to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS in 2018. A previous generation changed the world with the inspiring principle of healthcare for all free at the point of use. Almost 70 years on, I believe we have the chance to be as bold and innovative again, by embracing the new age of medical science and the transformative effect this can have for patients. That is what drives me as minister and why I believe 2016 will be a landmark year for our sector.

Achieving the vision set out in the Life Sciences Strategy means supporting the pioneers across our NHS, in medical research charities and within industry. That’s why it was a great privilege before Christmas to visit Moorfields Eye Hospital and John Radcliffe Hospital, celebrating innovations that are improving patient care.

At Moorfields I was shown the fascinating work of the London Project to Cure Blindness and the latest innovations in age-related macular degeneration (AMD) treatment, including pioneering human embryonic stem cell treatments. Cells are derived from a donated early embryo and ‘seeded’ with specialised eye cells and implanted at the back of the retina. The idea is that the cells will replicate themselves to provide the very layer of cells that are missing from AMD patients and potentially give them their sight back.

The results from the first operation using this new technique are due soon and, if successful, will be a giant step in novel gene therapy and show how the NHS is at the forefront of innovative, cutting edge medical advances.

Making sure the NHS is always leading the world in adopting innovations is one of my main priorities as minister, especially when it comes to adopting new technology across the system. In a recent speech to the Association of Medical Research Charities, I described data and technology as the “oil that flows through a modern health service”. That’s why I introduced my Patient Data Bill in the last Parliament with the first ever fully updated integrated patient record passed into law last year. Also, I am delighted to support the hugely impressive push by Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to introduce tablets to replace paper.

The project includes replacing bedside paper charts with an ‘early warning tablet’ to identify patients at risk. The system works by inputting a patient’s vital signs in to a tablet by their bed. The tablet links to the patient’s barcode wrist band to identify them and immediately provides advice on how to manage their care as well as alerting staff to any deterioration of their condition.

As well as helping provide safer and better care, the information can be shared around the Trust so it saves staff the time previously spent looking for and transporting paper charts. The technology has been developed through the National Institute of Health Research, funded by the Department of Health’s Safer Hospitals, Safer Wards Technology Fund.

Faster adoption of technology also means providing a service we expect in every other walk of life: Wi-Fi. That’s why we have accepted the recommendation for free Wi-Fi in NHS buildings made by Martha Lane Fox in her recent review to improve the use of online technology in the NHS.

Free Wi-Fi will now be provided in all NHS buildings to improve medical treatment and patient experience. Patients will now be able to keep in contact with family and friends while in hospital as well as being more entertained. On the clinical side, it will free up clinical time and also improve safety, in exactly the type of way that John Radcliffe Hospital has demonstrated so well.

As we count down towards the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, I firmly believe we are putting in place a new model of healthcare as bold and innovative as a previous generation did in 1948. As the Life Sciences Strategy continues to go from strength to strength, my mission as minister is clear: working with all of you to make this bold vision a reality.