30 March 2020

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The healthcare sector is facing unprecedented challenges. Since the creation of the NHS over 70 years ago, there have been major changes that challenge the financial stability and quality of care the health service can deliver. As people live longer, with many receiving treatment for one or more long-term conditions, demand will increase on our healthcare system. Set against a backdrop of finite clinical skills and flat budgets, there is more strain on the NHS than ever.

It’s no secret. The NHS needs to transform the way it approaches patient care to combat pressure on resources and meet rising demands. To move forward successfully, we must find new ways to cope with the ever-changing healthcare demands in the UK.

‘The only way the NHS can stay true to its founding principles in a world of rising demand, rising costs and expectations is to use digital technology to transform itself,’ says NHS-X, whose purpose is to deliver the health secretary’s Tech Vision and give staff and citizens the technology they need.

They are calling for a more integrated, citizen-centric health and social care service: ‘If we can get this right, there is huge potential to improve…the experience of patients, people in care…staff, and productivity.’ This will require the sharing of data and information quickly, securely and reliably.

Digitally enabled care will create new ways of working that use resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. NHS-X recognise that 5G is set to become a key player in the digital transformation of the NHS. For example, transmission of high-quality and timely information will empower clinicians and paramedics in the diagnostic and treatment process. It’ll enable collaboration with patients, ensure specialists can connect and review high quality scans and X-Rays, and use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to reach effective care decisions. This is effectively a ‘virtual’ colleague in the room. These long-term plans will also see the expansion of online consultations, which could help reach the target of reducing outpatient appointments by a third.

This may seem futuristic. But the reality is closer than you think.

In 2019, BT partnered with University Hospitals Birmingham. Using the public network, for the very first time, we delivered a remote ultrasound and augmented reality (AR) feed from a moving ambulance in the field, to the main hospital. The 5G connected ambulance shows the capability for a patient to be remotely assessed and diagnosed, with their medical records, vital signs and ultrasounds being shared using virtual reality (VR). The field practitioner is also guided using haptic technology and AR; receiving close-up footage of wounds and injuries. The patient can then be triaged in real-time. Building this new technology into two real-world emergency scenarios, we demonstrated how a high-bandwidth connection aids a paramedic in the field. Thanks to the faster speeds, scale, reliability and responsiveness of 5G, the NHS can now deliver the expertise of hospital clinicians out into the field.

The 5G connected ambulance is just the start. It brings us closer to a reality where care is no longer just delivered in hospitals and GP surgeries, but also in patient’s homes, community drop-in centres, care homes and pharmacies. This shift will also bring in real-time health monitoring using 5G connected devices, giving clinicians access to diverse patient information, including medical record history, test results and real-time health data.

Imagine how much more accessible care would become, particularly for the elderly, frail, or for infants needing urgent medical treatment. By bringing diagnostic and clinical expertise closer to the patient, we ultimately deliver better patient outcomes.

Could this revolutionise the way we understand patient care? The answer is out there in the community. The biggest changes realised by new technology could be the ability to manage the care of life-long conditions through more independent care - moving out into people’s homes. New solutions are set to enable large steps toward personalised, preventative care. Wearables, such as watches, could support the prevention of medical conditions by providing clinicians with invaluable data on patient lifestyle and promoting more independent management of personal health and wellbeing. This matches the NHS-X mission: ‘Give people the tools to access information and services directly, so they can best take charge of their own health and care.’

Technology in the home could also help alleviate social care issues. Isolation can be combatted by connecting peers and support networks. Patterns of people’s vital signs and movement in the home could also highlight emerging health issues. This type of connected healthcare solution has not been possible on such a massive scale before; as there’s a vast amount of information required from patients, clinical departments and field practitioners, which must then be transmitted and analysed. This can only be reliably supported using the extra capacity, bandwidth and reliability of 5G.

Digital solutions, underpinned by a 5G network, will increase the quality of care for patients and allow healthcare professionals to focus on delivering the most-effective treatment, whilst utilising resources in the most efficient way. 5G has the potential to provide a much-needed lifeline to a strained NHS.

If you’d like to see the demonstration live in action, the video of our 5G use case at University Hospitals Birmingham can be found at https://vimeo.com/377831914 To continue the conversation about how this technology works and consider what 5G will do for you, please visit https://business.bt.com/solutions/5g-bt-for-business/ and don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Keiron Salt, principal technology partner, health & social care at BT Enterprise

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