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Mobile Technology (Health Care)

Volume 553: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Mr Havard. I welcome the Minister to his place. We were occupants of neighbouring offices in this House, but I tend not to see him quite so much now, with his promotion to the Government ranks.

In every aspect of our lives, technology is driving innovation, improvement and increased efficiency. Health care is no different, where the use of mobile communications technology is becoming increasingly important. We are reaching a point where mobile technology can take an increasingly strategic role in meeting today’s health care demands. That is because a number of critical factors are converging, including several extremely demanding health care challenges that, taken together, require new approaches and solutions; the remarkable computing power now available on portable devices such as tablets and smart phones; and the development of specific mobile technology-based health-care focused solutions that can improve quality, efficiency and a patient’s experience of their care. I shall cover each of those in turn.

Our health service faces unprecedented challenges that go way beyond the £20 billion cuts to national health service spending, and most health care systems across the world face similar situations. We are, as a population, living longer. That is undoubtedly a good thing, but it brings with it demands. Older people with multiple and complex health care needs constitute the majority of interactions with the NHS, and their care consumes the majority of health care expenditure, to the extent that health care costs are growing faster than gross domestic product. New drugs, diagnostics and treatments mean that we can treat conditions that years ago were simply considered beyond the reach of modern medicine. They are welcome developments, but they inevitably involve significant financial cost.

A less welcome reason for increasing health costs relates to the increase in long-term and chronic diseases. Over recent years, we have seen the rise in the prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other conditions that have a significant lifestyle-related component. They contribute directly to health care requirements and lead to secondary complications. For example, the single most significant risk factor to the development of dementia is cardiovascular health. The NHS needs to address all those challenges while delivering an unprecedented 4% year-on-year compound efficiency savings. The Minister, as a former member of the Select Committee on Health, on which I still sit, will be aware that the Committee has correctly pointed out that such a level of savings has not been achieved by any other health care system.

I think we can accept that the face of health care and the challenges it faces are changing. How can mobile communications technology help deal with the challenges? It is worth reflecting that the power of today’s mobile communications technology—they are long words, but we would just call them tablet computers and smart phones—is comparable to some of the faster supercomputers of just a decade or so ago. I was interested in what is termed “always on” connectivity, which means that one can always be reached if devices are switched on, through secure wi-fi, 3G and the emerging 4G technology. Such devices can connect instantly with extremely powerful networks. That means that working practices established 10 or more years ago can be radically transformed. Through harnessing the power and capabilities of mobile communications technology, the health service can better support its health care professionals. Technology can reduce the time spent on administration and give professionals much more needed time to care.

Specifically, modern mobile communications technology can help patients and the public make healthier decisions, enabling individuals to manage their conditions more effectively and therefore to live independently. It can also help health care professionals collect information more effectively, which leads to improved efficiency, patient safety and care quality. I will draw on a few examples that relate to those areas. Mobile technology can help patients take more control of their health by encouraging healthier lifestyle choices; by giving patients more control and information to manage their conditions effectively; and by supporting more comprehensive remote monitoring.

I think the Minister is aware that there is already extensive clinical evidence that shows that patients who take an active role in their care do better. For example, a study in Toronto showed that diabetic patients who monitored their blood pressure using smart phones experienced a 25% drop in cardiovascular mortality. The Government have committed to giving patients the right to book general practitioner appointments, order repeat prescriptions and talk to GP practices online. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. The effect on the population’s health would be much stronger if patients were encouraged to monitor their care with support from their health care professionals.

Much closer to home, Leicestershire’s nutrition and dietetic services and the university of Chester in the UK have pioneered a secure smart phone solution to enhance the approach to adult weight management services. Achieving sustainable weight loss is hard, yet their service, known as LEAP—lifestyle, eating and activity programmes—weight management groups, based on national guidance, has achieved just that. They have found that the key to long-term weight loss is to provide follow-up support. After finishing the initial programme, patients take part in a three-month follow-up programme, focusing on self-monitoring with encouragement from staff via text messages. I understand that they are not alone in doing that kind of thing; the all-party group of which I was formerly chair, Slimming World, does something similar. To ensure patient confidentiality and data security, a BlackBerry smart phone is used with an application that converts text messages to e-mail and vice versa. That creates an accurate record of patient-practitioner dialogue. The results include statistically significant weight loss compared with a control group and an improved quality of life.

Those two simple examples show that by supporting individuals to use smart phones and tablets already at their disposal, people can take more control of their lives and make healthier decisions. There is scope for the NHS to become more proactive in encouraging such approaches without incurring significant cost.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is making a point about the importance of technology in preventing health care problems. As she will know, the preventive public health role is being transferred to local government. Does she agree that it is vital for the technology to have the funding needed when the preventive role is transferred, and that it is not left to local government, given the scale of the cuts that local government has suffered?

A serious point is being made here: public health is being transferred to local government, and the funds that go with it need to be spent on public health and preventive means. I am worried that councils might use some of the money to do work to which they are already committed. So, yes, they do need support, and we need to ensure that the money they get is spent correctly and wisely. Mobile technology can help to improve public health.

One of the perennial challenges of modern health care is to keep accurate, comprehensive records without detracting from the care-giving process, which is quite difficult. Too often the supposed solutions feel burdensome. As a result, clinicians can sometimes be difficult to engage—in fact, there is a view that sometimes clinicians rarely engage—and the accuracy and completeness of records suffers as a result.

We can show that there are tried and tested solutions developed by and in partnership with NHS organisations that have been shown to work. For example, digital pen-and-paper technology, supported by mobile connectivity, can be used to complete patient records. In turn, that can improve patient safety, care quality and efficiency. That technology is pioneered by Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust and allows mums-to-be to keep their paper records as normal, and because the records are made using a mobile-enabled digital pen and paper, the maternity department instantly receives an easily accessible electronic copy of the expectant mum’s paper records. That happens while the midwife is still with the expectant mum in her home. As well as improving safety when mums arrive at the hospital without their notes, the technology’s deployment has brought about real efficiency by halving the time that midwives spend on administration.

As well as solutions that can help health care professionals in the community, we need to recognise that most acute hospitals are large complex buildings that, all too sadly, often span several sites. There is strong evidence that the accuracy of patient records and the quality of clinical decision making may be improved if clinicians record information themselves and have access to it when they are with their patients, rather than leaving the process to administrators who are removed from the care. Realistically, that can be achieved only by making it easier for clinicians to record and access information wherever they are.

I am told that organisations such as University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust are making real progress in mobilising information so that clinicians have real-time, secure access to patient records. The foundation trust is using tablet devices and smartphones to achieve such improvements. As the NHS looks to implement new solutions, we need to encourage people to focus on secure approaches that patients and clinicians trust, which means designing privacy into the entire system, with security measures built into mobile devices. We also need reliable connectivity, which is fundamental for effective mobile working. Even in areas with the most advanced mobile infrastructures, bandwidth can sometimes be limited, so it is essential to choose hardware that can switch seamlessly between different mobile protocols and wi-fi connections. Such functionality would minimise bandwidth-related costs. We need to focus on approaches that complement patient-clinician interactions and that make the most of existing technology. Mobile solutions that can be rapidly deployed and that integrate with existing infrastructure would ensure investments that have already been made can be enhanced rather than discarded.

As the former chair of Liverpool Women’s hospital, I know there are now solutions to some of the problems in enabling midwives to spend the maximum amount of time out on the front line. Such improvements are a godsend and enable our professionals to deal with patients efficiently and effectively. I am aware of the Government’s plan to introduce a fund for technology to improve midwifery and nursing care, and I very much welcome that. As the plans for the fund are developed, it is essential to learn from those trusts that have already pioneered new approaches. I ask the Minister, therefore, to meet me and some of the professionals who have been involved in developing the examples I have cited so that he can hear about their experiences. That might help future implementation. The truth is that mobile communication technology will be a core strand in the 21st-century health service. We very much need it, and working together we can deliver for all the people who depend on the health service to deliver their care.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.

It is also a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing it and on highlighting an important focus of future health care policy. She is right to highlight the Nicholson challenge: for the NHS just to stand still and to continue performing at the same level so that patients continue to receive the high-quality care that we all believe and know they deserve, it needs to make £20 billion-worth of efficiency savings and to put that money back into front-line patient care. A key part of the debate is that better IT will improve the way we communicate with patients and keep people well and better supported in their own home and community, on the basis that preventive health care is much better than curative health care, both for the patient and, financially, for the NHS. Of course, I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and people involved in the IT industry at a later date to discuss things further.

Although we know that simple things such as in-ear thermometers, improved hoists in hospitals and better-quality equipment in operating theatres has improved the quality of patient care over many years and driven down the cost of providing health care, the hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that we need to harness and better utilise more modern types of technology such as telehealth and mobile technology to support people better in their own homes and to drive down the cost of care.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health outlined the NHS mandate, in which he set out the vision for the NHS and addressed some of the key challenges that we face. In her speech, the hon. Lady rightly highlighted that we have an ageing population with many people living a lot longer with long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia. The challenge for the NHS is ensuring that we deliver care in a better way that meets people’s care needs while ensuring that, where we can, at the same time as producing high-quality care, we reduce costs so that there is more money to go around to look after more people.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in the publication of the mandate that a real priority for the NHS is to improve the management of long-term conditions by helping people to better understand their conditions and to take control by supporting them to self-care, thereby realising the massive potential benefits offered by information technology both in supporting people to better understand and look after their conditions in the community, and in their own homes, and in supporting, better educating and better looking after the people who look after patients—the carers. That is an important part of providing high-quality health care.

We already know that there are 15 million people with long-term conditions, accounting for some 70% of all in-patient beds. We also know that many such hospital stays could be avoided through better management, including the better use of mobile technologies to prevent people from becoming so unwell in the first place that they need to be admitted to hospital. That would also help to prevent the revolving door of hospital admissions that sometimes happens when people do not necessarily have the support that they need and deserve when they are discharged from hospital, perhaps after a hip operation or similar stay.

Improving access and the quality of health care available to all patients is a key aim for the NHS, not just in meeting the Nicholson challenge but in improving day-to-day quality of care. Increasingly, technology will play a part in that: not just breakthroughs in simple day-to-day medical devices but changes in how we reach people in remote rural settings and in their homes and communities through the use of telemedicine, telehealth and mobile devices. We can and should take advantage of the deeply interconnected nature of modern society to improve people’s experience of health care and significantly increase our efficiency in delivering it.

There are infinite ways in which technology can transform how people access health and social care services. “Digital First”, a report published in July by the Department of Health, estimates that the NHS could save up to £2.9 billion by implementing just 10 simple actions to transform how people access health care. Those savings could be made almost immediately and with minimal investment by making use of existing technologies to reduce inappropriate face-to-face contacts.

There are many examples of simple things that can be done, such as having a doctor or nurse talk to a patient on the phone when they call to book an appointment or as an initial assessment. About one third of patients do not necessarily need a face-to-face GP appointment. Such conversations can reassure callers that they are okay and not that unwell, and that perhaps they should see how things go overnight or later in the day and call back if they need further help. They also help the patient access health care in the most appropriate way, as the GP triages the patient remotely.

Texting and e-mailing people to remind them of appointments has already been shown throughout the NHS to reduce the number of people who fail to turn up to their medical appointments. One big challenge in health care is getting patients to attend and comply with treatment, particularly those with longer-term conditions who must make multiple trips to a hospital or care setting. E-mails and texts are an effective way to remind people about their appointments and help educate them, removing the burden from the acute setting by ensuring that they understand how better to manage their conditions.

Those are simple changes, using the technologies that people use every day and are already familiar with, that can free hundreds of millions of pounds and provide more convenient access to NHS services, particularly for patients who live in more remote and rural parts of the country.

Technology can also improve the working lives of professionals. The funds that we are making available to nursing staff will enable them to access information faster so that they can spend more face-to-face time with patients, an important point that the hon. Lady made in her speech. Doctors, nurses and all health care professionals want to spend time looking after their patients. They do not want to be bogged down in paperwork. Technology, whether used on the ward or to access and look after patients remotely via telehealth or mobile technology, is a good way to ensure that front-line health care professionals have more time to do what they want to do and what they are trained to do: care for and look after the sick and patients.

I have seen at first hand the potential of telehealth and telemedicine to transform and save people’s lives. Earlier this month, I visited the telehealth hub at Airedale NHS Foundation Trust, which I know is on the other side of the Pennines from the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I am sure she will not mind my using it as an example. The hub is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by skilled nurses specialising in acute care. A consultant is also on hand if needed.

The aim of the service is to care for patients closer to home and keep them there whenever it is safe to do so. In other words, it ensures that people are properly supported and well advised in their own homes and other care settings, such as residential homes, so they do not become as unwell as they might otherwise. They are given appropriate health care advice, guidance and support in their homes and care settings, which helps reduce the burden on acute services in the area. It is particularly important in more rural areas, where the distances that professionals must travel to look after patients are so great that the only effective way to get around to as many patients as possible, in both financial and human care terms, is to use the benefits that telehealth brings to Airedale and the surrounding areas.

Evidence suggests that many patients are admitted into hospital when, as we have discussed, that is not always the best environment or the most appropriate place for them. Using telemedicine allows patients to manage their conditions with the hospital’s support. It can prevent time-consuming, costly trips to hospital for outpatient appointments. The patient’s GP is instantly informed and kept up-to-date about any consultations that occur via the telehealth care hub.

Importantly, the Government do not want such initiatives to take place in isolation. We believe, as I know the hon. Lady does, that we must ensure that they become day-to-day occurrences in the NHS as the years go on. Technology and the better use of information provide immense opportunities for improving the quality and accessibility of NHS care, not just in remote rural settings but in every care setting that we can think of.

The Government’s information strategy for health and social care, “The Power of Information”, is another example that highlights the importance of harnessing innovative new technology and delivering better health for patients. The strategy, of which I know the hon. Lady will be aware, was published in May, setting out ambitions for people to be offered online and mobile access to records, electronic communication with professional teams, online health and care transactions and the ability to rate services and provide feedback about how effective and convenient they were for the patient.

A small number of actions will need to be led nationally, such as setting common standards to allow information to flow effectively around the system. More detailed implementation planning will be led by organisations including the NHS Commissioning Board to ensure that current good localised initiatives in different parts of the country are rolled out nationally. We learn from areas such as Airedale, where looking after people in their own homes through the better use of technology is going well. Those examples should be rolled out to become the norm in the NHS. I know that the NHS Commissioning Board will be central to driving that through, which is why improving information technology was at the heart of the NHS mandate launched last week.

Mainstreaming assistive technology across the NHS is particularly important. As we have discussed, it is not good enough to have high-quality localised initiatives; we need a systematic, NHS-wide approach that embraces technology. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced at the Age UK conference last week that plans have been agreed that will ensure a further 100,000 people will be supported by telehealth in 2013, a sixteenfold increase in the number of people being helped by telehealth and telecare. It will make Britain the largest market in the world behind the USA, which is something that we can all be proud of.

The recently published results from the whole system demonstrator programme are potentially game-changing. We now have robust academic and scientific evidence that such technology can drive improvements not only in quality and value in the NHS but in patient satisfaction levels and outcomes. We all know that the most important people in all these discussions are the patients whom the clinician looks after and the telehealth provider wants to look after. Importantly, when we are designing telehealth services, like all other NHS services, we need feedback from patients in order to ensure that where services are working well, they can be rolled out elsewhere in the NHS, and that where improvements could be made and things are not going so well for patients, the NHS can learn from that and adapt technology to improve care in future.

At the Age UK conference last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced some significant steps on the road to supporting the 3 million people who stand to benefit from telehealth and telecare by 2017. As the hon. Lady said, the key is improving care for older people. They are the biggest users of NHS services, so they will see the most immediate changes and feel the most immediate benefits from telehealth. We have a growing elderly population and growing numbers of people with multiple long-term conditions. In order to meet the challenge of looking after them properly and providing dignity in elderly care, we must ensure that we keep them well at home and in their communities. One significant part of the answer is doing more for telehealth. The Government are well on the road to doing so. I welcome further discussions with the hon. Lady about what more we can do to look after people, particularly the frail elderly, in their own homes.

Thank you, Minister. I am sure that you will have interesting discussions with your colleagues in the devolved Administrations about interconnectivity as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.