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NHS admits frightening 6.6M patient backlog – can tech really fix this?

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Busy Hospital Ward

Virtual wards, surgical hubs and artificial intelligence are said to be “key to tackling the backlog” – but how far can tech really go in saving the NHS? 

The NHS is in critical condition, with thousands of patients waiting more than two years for treatment, and chronic staff shortages pushing the health system to its breaking point. 

While 6.6 million people wait to receive the care they need, bosses are desperately trying to fill vacancies around the UK so that there are enough medical professionals to carry out procedures. Over 60,000 professionals are currently needed to fill those gaps. 

Can tech save the NHS?

In an earlier statement from gov.uk, it states that surgical hubs, virtual wards and artificial intelligence are “key to tackling the backlog” and for putting the NHS on a sustainable footing. The same report claimed that it plans to treat 30% more elective care patients by 2023/24. 

The 2021 report, which also announced a record investment of £36bn, said that the NHS will be “doing things differently”, and that new technology will “speed up diagnosis”.

It claimed that new, innovative ways of working will be the driving force for getting the NHS back on track, pointing strongly towards tech innovation as the way to do it. 

Fast forward to 2022, the UK health system is being crushed by a force of 6.6 million people waiting for care, with patients waiting years, not months, for the treatment they need.

Though AI, virtual care and other highly-advanced tech is being implemented, there are doubts as to wether it can really be the “key to tackling” the problem. 

Illustration of futuristic hospital Adopting the “latest technologies”

Professor Steve Powis, NHS England medical director, said: “From adopting the latest technologies to more evening and weekend working, NHS staff are going to great lengths to increase the number of operations carried out.

The further funding announced will support staff to deliver millions more vital checks, tests and operations, so if you have a health concern, please come forward to receive the care and treatment you may need.”

“No sign of respite” 

Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at The Health Foundation said: “These latest figures highlight that the NHS is under severe and unrelenting pressures, with no sign of the respite that used to come in the summer months

“The alarm bell is sounding loudest in emergency care services, where patients are facing long waits for ambulances and in A&E departments. In June 2022, over 130,000 patients waited more than four hours in A&E for admission to a hospital bed – 22,000 of whom waited more than 12 hours.

“Fundamentally this is a problem with the whole health and social care system. Chronic workforce shortages, a lack of bed capacity and delays in discharging patients are all causing these pressures. 

“The latest GP patient experience survey highlights the growing problems in accessing primary care, as demand for appointments rises steadily.

“While the debate in the Conservative leadership contest focuses on cutting taxes, the next prime minister will need a coherent plan to address the pressures on NHS and social care services. 

“This includes investment in the NHS workforce and expanding capacity in social care.”

illustration of a man and rainbow

Danielle Jefferies, Policy Analyst at The King’s Fund said the figures show waiting times have reached “unprecedented levels” 

She added:  “The new government faces some difficult decisions and will need to be honest with the public about the standards of care they can expect.

“Thanks to the huge efforts of NHS staff, significant progress has been made in reducing the number of people facing waits of two years or more for planned hospital treatment. 

“But overall, waiting lists have continued to grow to 6.6 million people and the number of people waiting more than a year is also rising.”

Tech already in action

Surgical robots 

Surgical robots are in action at Milton Keynes hospital which enable faster surgery and shorter recovery times. It was the first hospital in Europe to use the “Versius Surgical Robotic System” for complex cancer cases and major surgery. 

Surgical hubs

Surgical hubs are in place at Moorfields Eye Hospital to reduce time spent in hospital by cataract patients. The tech allowed over 700 operations to be undertaken in one week. 

Cardio drive-through 

A “hospital at home” programme at Doncaster Bassetlaw Hospitals Trust now operates a “cardio drive-through service” where patients can get an ECG heart monitor device from a member of staff. More heart checks can be carried out each day, freeing up space in the hospital.

Virtual wards 

Hospitals around the UK are already using virtual wards and AI solutions to help cope with demand. This film shows a virtual ward in action at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust:


Dr. Charles Armitage, CEO and Founder of Florence, a tech platform connecting NHS and social care workers with available shifts, says the NHS is “falling to pieces”. 

Dr. Charles Armitage, CEO and Founder of Florence

He added: The NHS is on the brink of collapse and is not equipped to deal with the challenges it faces. This shockingly high backlog exists because we simply don’t have the front-line staff in place to deal with growing demands.

“Current staffing levels are significantly impacting quality of care. We’re seeing a dramatic increase in wait times as elective surgeries put on hold during COVID-19 restarted, but we simply don’t have the front-line staff to deal with the added pressure. This combined with a high vacancy rate is leading to unprecedented pressure on healthcare services.

“The interface between the NHS and social care, A&E and discharge, or the front door and the back door of the healthcare system, is where we’re seeing the biggest pinch points and the system is really starting to break down. When I was a doctor, I saw first-hand the number of people lying in beds waiting to be discharged and it’s only getting worse.

“Nine in ten (89%) NHS and health and social care workers already state that quality of care is being impacted by chronic staff shortages, and over a quarter (27%) are calling for the whole system to be overhauled.”


Previously on Health Tech World:

Virtual hospital wards – desperate measures or digital revolution?

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