When technologists gather to discuss breakthrough advances in what networks can deliver, their eyes often focus on the exciting innovations the future may bring – such as driverless cars and remote surgery with robot arms holding the scalpel.
The global pandemic served to show that some aspects of this futuristic lifestyle are actually ready for adoption right now. The use of Teams, Zoom and other video-led conference calling apps for example will continue to boom – especially given the growing environmental opposition to ‘unnecessary’ travel.
And of course, in the world of business, the investment is there – whether in advanced smartphones, the latest laptops, or the private networks to carry the traffic. But for more public facing, personal services, like healthcare, the investment in the technology will depend much more heavily on public funding.
Digital healthcare solutions
Within healthcare, while the pandemic has shown the possibilities and introduced the concept of remote consultations and diagnostics, there is still a lot of work to be done to deliver the networks and to educate people on the benefits of this new approach. The good news is that, in the background, some of the smart city schemes currently in commission are focused on improving the basic connectivity available to, in, and between ‘public’ buildings to support the ambitions of a better-connected healthcare service.
Take Oxfordshire County Council’s two-year plan to connect more than 200 sites across the County with a high-speed digital network. Partly funded by the Government’s Rural Gigabit Hub initiative – a key element in its levelling up agenda – Oxfordshire’s Wide Area Network (WAN) will eventually connect 217 public sites, many of them in rural locations. The sites include a host of GP surgeries, care homes, community clinics and centres.
This improved standard of connectivity not only enables faster, more detailed sharing of patient data – including high quality imaging – it also serves as the base to fuel the introduction of remote diagnostics, data input and patient consultations. That is where education comes to the fore, because some of the most vulnerable, and in-need patients will require help to make the most of the remote treatments that could be available.
For example, hypertensive patients can use remote, connected, blood pressure monitoring systems to manage and better understand their condition as well as keep the GP surgery informed. While some elderly patients may not be able to cope with the complexity of some of the technology involved, with the right training, care workers making home visits can be armed with the information and data to ask the right questions, take the right readings and provide valuable feedback on the patient’s condition.
Embracing digital practices in healthcare
At the other end of the spectrum, switching to digital communications has been shown to improve the uptake of the school-based vaccination programmes. The traditional manual process of sending out letters and collecting paper-based parental consent forms was leading to decreasing rates of childhood vaccinations, and also made data collection on both the uptake and the reasons for refusal difficult to analyse.
Switching to a digital solution enables consent to be gathered at speed and can also include other relevant patient data to be captured using simple questionnaires. In fact, the switch to a digital system has been shown to not only increase the number of children being vaccinated, but it has also increased the efficiency of the process and shortened the time of the vaccination sessions.
At the end of last year, when the NHS published its priorities and operational guidance for the next six months it emphasised the need to build on what was learned during the pandemic to transform the delivery of services, manage the demand on mental health services, and address health inequalities. The NHS has estimated that the expansion of ‘virtual ward’ models could create the equivalent of 5,000 extra hospital beds.
From a public perspective, the investment is needed in the networks themselves. The UK government’s White Paper on levelling up identified broadband and mobile infrastructure as one of the key capital projects required to rebalance inequalities in access to services.
Improving the capacity, speed and resilience of public, and indeed private, networks - whether fixed or mobile – is the only way to ensure they can handle the vast amounts of data generated as well as deliver it at the required speed and quality of service.
And while the smartphone generation now encompasses a large proportion of society, there are still some who struggle with modern technology.
One thing is clear, in order for the nation to truly embrace digital practices in healthcare, much-needed investment in network quality is essential, as is continued investment in the training of the staff and the education of the users that will be vital to the acceptance, uptake and success of digital healthcare services for young and old alike.