How tech innovations can help healthcare during the pandemic

By Leila Hawkins
Dr Anne Blackwood, Chief Executive of UK-based Health Enterprise East, explains how technology can help the NHS during Covid...

Dr Anne Blackwood describes Health Enterprise East (HEE) as the "interface" between the UK's National Health Service and the technology industry. Founded in 2004, HEE was originally funded by the UK's Department of Health, and was part of a national network of NHS innovation hubs that aimed to support frontline healthcare staff who had an idea for a new product and needed help to commercialise it. 

Working with frontline staff and SMEs in the medtech community, HEE helps them understand each other's needs, including economic challenges and how medical devices can change the way a patient moves through the healthcare system, such as a self-test at home instead of at a hospital clinic. 

This in particular is a growing trend, especially since the Covid pandemic began. Blackwood explains that when the crisis started technology within the NHS dramatically scaled up to make remote consultations in people's homes widely available. "It's a great example of technology that's been around for years, and yet its adoption within the NHS had been poor, primarily because of scepticism about its benefits, and whether patients would be able to cope with it."

"Of course Covid has rapidly changed everyone's perception of its benefits. For example the elderly population, once they're motivated to speak to their grandchildren on Skype or Zoom calls, suddenly find that having a video consultation with their clinician is something they're able to navigate, and indeed welcome."

This signifies a big shift in how the NHS has traditionally delivered care. "There's been a rapid transition from a paternalistic healthcare system where the doctor knows best, and you get an appointment at their convenience, not your convenience. Covid has turned that on its head and actually now things are much more at the patient's convenience."

But parts of the system are under immense strain at the moment, with the pandemic leading to a pause in many treatments. "A clinician involved in colonoscopies came to us, who at the moment has a very long waiting list. One of the challenges they have is the risk of infection, which means that between each colonoscopy they have to deep clean the theatre before the next patient can be brought in. They used to do six procedures in a day, curently it's only three. Waiting lists within the NHS are at a record level now." 

To address this, the clinician and HEE are working on a device that can isolate this part of the body, with the aim of reducing the risk of infection and therefore cutting downtime in theatres. 

Technology that can minimise the threat of infection, assist with faster, better ways of disinfecting areas, and provide healthcare remotely, is needed more than ever at the moment. HEE are currently working on another initiative to provide care to breast cancer patients. "The surgeon came to us particularly concerned about the mental health of many of his patients, who were concened that delays in treatment may have a very negative impact on progression of their disease. We are developing an app to help provide them with reassurance and guidance while they're primarily managed remotely. The surgeon sees the benefits of regular communication with his patients - even when treatments are back to normal."

Blackwood believes that there must be a focus on mental health. "I think innovations that support the mental health of patients and also the mental health of staff, particularly those working in the ICU and some of the other more sensitive areas, are needed. They've really been through a very challenging period, and have lost many more patients than they would normally in a short space of time. Staff need particular emotional support to deal with some of the things they've seen, and we'll definitely see some innovation in that space, perhaps delivered through digital therapies." 


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