Digital healthcare: the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow

Euan McComiskie shares some learning about ideas and innovation in healthcare technology

Digital healthcare

I recently attended the Digital Healthcare Show in London. It was a large conference and included data and cyber security, telehealth, care home monitoring, virtual surgery, digital transformation and the new NHSX. A veritable feast for this #DigitalPhysio and #DataGeek!

The show presented the latest in policy, strategy and restructuring in English digital health, as well as an eye-opening journey through the worldwide technology innovations that will impact on future delivery of healthcare. Simon Eccles, national chief clinical information officer and Tara Donnelly, chief digital officer, NHS England, launched the mission priorities for NHSX on 1 July. If the product is as good as the promise this will be a ground breaking moment for UK healthcare.

Shafi Ahmed, chief medical officer, Medical Realities and of #VirtualSurgeon fame, took us on a whistlestop tour of global healthcare innovation including robotic surgery, virtual learning environments and artificial intelligence-led consultations with holographic clinicians.

Current technology in use around the UK includes the replacement of non-emergency pagers in Suffolk, widespread virtual consultations in the north of Scotland and the patient-created customisable virtual fish in a huge virtual tank at Alder Hey hospital (a great encouragement for participation by unruly young people).

Using AI

The healthcare sector hasn’t kept pace with other sectors like transport, retail, banking and entertainment in terms of technology innovation. These sectors’ use of artificial intelligence (AI) is now so advanced that many customers are unaware they are interacting with an online chatbot rather than another human. Companies like Amazon are now using AI to predict orders, allowing them to deliver within two hours in some areas. In contrast, the NHS is surprised by peaks of healthcare demand in the winter months every year. AI is very sparsely used in healthcare but companies like Babylon and EQL are exploring this. Given the opportunity and investment, it is evident that AI can help clinicians meet the perennial challenges of service demand.

Workforce digital skills

There was wide discussion about the content and style in which clinicians are educated and whether this will meet the digital demands of future healthcare.  

In the UK 85% of homes are online, 75% everyday of them are through mobile devices and 82% of them are online everyday

It came after hearing the stark prediction from the World Health Organization that at current trajectories there will be a global shortage of over 15 million doctors and nurses. There weren’t figures for physiotherapists but this adds to the importance of the work underway between the CSP, national governments and higher education institutes to address the current recruitment gap. James Freed, chief information officer, Health Education England, stated that by 2030 healthcare staff will spend 75 per cent more time on digital tasks so we need to be ready to meet that demand in numbers and skillset. There are three options: do less, spend more or do things differently. The first two options aren’t plausible so we need to do things differently, making digital innovation critical. Supporting students and clinicians with a suite of training opportunities can develop digital knowledge, skills and experience.

Sam Shah, director of digital development, NHSX, gave us a timely reminder about the penetration of digital in our lives. Age is not a digital barrier with many ‘silver surfers’ at the forefront of digital awareness. In fact, deprivation is one of the biggest factors in digital exclusion, so digital transformation programmes must make efforts to decrease gaps in equity of service. Successful digital transformation programmes recognise these challenges but also highlight the opportunities available when things go well. Healthcare innovation isn’t new but it is time for us to catch up with other sectors or risk being left behind.

Bold ideas

Iain Hennessy, clinical innovation lead, Alder Hey Hospital, spoke about the courage to ‘follow the laughter’, explaining that the most outrageous suggestions are often met with laughter but these ideas can become some of the best technological innovations. I’m sure that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas were met with laughter when first discussed in public. There is no reason why physiotherapists can’t be brave and put forward their brilliant ideas and become healthcare innovators.

My experience consolidates the message that it is unlikely that technology will ever replace human physiotherapists but that technology-enabled clinicians will absolutely replace those that are not. 

Did you know?

  • Beyond Verbal have software that allows your smart phone to detect changes in your voice that can identify cardiac failure before you are symptomatic
  • Butterfly have augmented-reality software to guide ultrasound scans to achieve the best diagnostic outcome
  • A 3D printer on the international space station was used to create a splint for an astronaut who suffered a finger fracture in an anti-gravity incident


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