As we learn to live with COVID-19, the NHS has been left to cope with new peaks and variants of the virus and is suffering the consequences.
Throughout 2022, hospitals and GPs have struggled to deal with the number of patients being admitted, with 96 per cent of A&E patients waiting longer than the target of four hours to be seen for minor injuries.
Similarly, ambulance wait times for life-threatening emergencies have increased by a critical two minutes, and the number of patients waiting over 13 weeks for important diagnostic tests has increased 25-fold.
Staff shortages and economic and political turmoil are only compounding this pressure.
It is clear that the efficiency of our healthcare system is lacking, which is costing lives and harming patient outcomes.
With the risk of new infections ever-present and the start of the recession now underway, the NHS must find new ways to adapt and restore an effective service for patients.
Employing new health tech innovations in our hospitals and the community can help address many of these healthcare system shortcomings.
Artificial intelligence (AI) in particular shows promise of helping to alleviate pressure on the NHS by streamlining workflows, automating processes and speeding up diagnostic testing for infectious diseases.
But what emerging health tech innovations are on the horizon in 2023?
Alex Batchelor, Director of health technology firm PicturaBio, shares his thoughts about the future of healthcare technology and AI in the upcoming year.
AI will improve healthcare by automating human processes
AI appears destined to play a big part in the future of pretty much everything, and there is a huge opportunity for it to improve systems and procedures across the NHS.
Most immediately, AI technologies can enable the automation of time-consuming and labour-intensive processes to significantly improve efficiency, speed and accuracy.
For example, AI is able to analyse large sets of data much more quickly and efficiently than any human could.
It is also able to surface patterns that could prove useful when it comes to diagnosing or providing care for patients.
Automating these processes and letting computers handle routine work frees up the valuable time of medical staff so that they can focus on tasks that require their expertise, such as delivering care to patients.
Regulation will continue to hold up health tech innovation
Although AI has the ability to revolutionise healthcare, the current regulation of products is hindering progress.
This is largely because AI is a relatively new field and most regulatory guidelines were written before it existed, which means the process of getting products approved is more extensive and takes longer.
The talented AI workforce will expand
Another major challenge for health tech innovation is that there are simply not enough people who are skilled in developing AI and machine learning technologies.
To progress innovation, we need many more talented engineers to join the AI development workforce. Or else we need to automate this role and recruit AI to write AI!
However, AI is a rapidly expanding industry and each year we see an influx of new skilled engineers.
It is likely than in 2023 and the following years, the pool of people who are skilled in this area will continue to increase and innovation will only snowball.
Economic uncertainty will delay innovation & investment
The UK is entering 2023 in recession.
Unfortunately, economic uncertainty tends to delay health technology innovation because it creates nervousness around what are often long-term investments.
Investors are understandably less willing to part with their money, unless there is some proven level of certainty that it is worthwhile.
Securing funding is still possible, it might take longer than usual.
On the other hand, a recession ought to provide an opportunity to evaluate our healthcare system and see if there are strategies we could employ in future that could save money.
The demand on the NHS is only increasing as the population grows and ages. Simply continuing to throw money at the problem is not sustainable.
Instead, there is a pressing need to address the efficiency of the whole system.
Diagnostics technology will advance faster than ever
After the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are generally more aware of the spreading of infections.
Many people now take it upon themselves to get tested using lateral flow tests and isolate or avoid social contact with vulnerable individuals.
This sense of responsibility is likely to stick as we move into 2023 and will be helpful in managing future infection peaks.
However, it is inevitable that a new COVID-style virus will emerge – we’ve seen SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 within the last decade.
This only increases the need for an improved diagnostic system that tests for multiple types of infections and is available to people within the community.
Instant and accurate tests like this enable people to quickly determine what type of illness they have contracted.
They can then act accordingly to limit the spread of infections, whether that’s choosing to work from home, isolating, or seeking appropriate treatment.
If more advanced testing technology had existed at the beginning of the pandemic, the country would have been able to get a handle on the spread of the virus much more efficiently, reducing the impact on the NHS.
As such, in 2023 I expect to see a much stronger focus on advancing diagnostic technology.
A ‘tripledemic’ will cause greater strain than ever
Winter 2022/23 is being called a ‘tripledemic’. This winter will be savage for people working in the NHS.
We are already seeing higher incidences of respiratory infections, particularly flu and RSV. Flu hospital admission rates have reached one in 100,000, which is much higher than normal this time of year.
The early arrival of flu season in autumn 2022 is creating even more pressure on GP surgeries and hospitals which are already overrun, either with patients waiting to be discharged or patients who have been unnecessarily admitted for minor ailments.
This pressure is likely to only get worse over the winter and persist into the first quarter of 2023.
The knock-on effects could be huge and stretch well over the entire year.
Unfortunately, I expect we will see even longer delays in NHS services and more people unable to receive critical treatment quickly.
What most needs to change in 2023?
Above all, the most pressing need that must be addressed in 2023 is the current pressure on the NHS.
The chancellor’s recent announcement of 3.3bn investment is a start, however, while financial investment is important, it is now crucial to address the efficiency of our healthcare system by leveraging current and emerging health technology.
Without it, the NHS will not keep up with demand and patient care will deteriorate.
Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our shortcomings in testing for infectious diseases.
Unless diagnostic systems improve, the NHS will continue to struggle with new peaks and variants, creating all manner of negative direct and indirect consequences.
Our current diagnostic tests are limited, inaccurate and time-consuming. As a result, infected patients are spreading their illnesses as they wait for results.
They are also likely to get worse, increasing the chances of hospitalisation not only of themselves, but of others they come into contact with.
In many instances, patients are adding to the strain on local health services by seeking medical support simply because they don’t know what they have and fear they have a more serious ailment.
This is why the ultimate healthtech development goal – throughout 2023 and beyond – has to be a universal diagnostic test to instantly identify which pathogen is causing an infection.
We’re not there yet, but the mounting problems faced by our health service necessitate bold and big thinking.
We need to focus our nation’s considerable tech expertise and medical knowledge on prevention – developing better diagnostic testing to limit the spread of illnesses and the number of patients visiting GPs or hospitals who don’t actually need treatment.
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