“The doctor will see you now,” reassure the adverts recently plastered across London’s transport network. They are for a new app that promises patients will be seen, well, now. No long wait on hold to try to get an appointment in two weeks’ time, no queues outside the GP practice at 8am in the hope of an emergency appointment.
It sounds great, but as with so much of the coming tech revolution in health, there are downsides—in this case, dragging relatively young and healthy tech-literate patients who rarely see a doctor away from GP surgeries, which then get left with a bigger proportion of older patients with more complicated problems. In some parts of London GPs are already warning that it will lead to a further funding crunch.
Technology has huge potential to help the NHS. As Jennifer Dixon of the Health Foundation explains, wearable devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics could all help to transform the way we are treated. But there are challenges too, as the unintended consequences of health apps demonstrate. Whitehall has often struggled with getting even its basic IT systems right—ConnectingForHealth, which was supposed to cost £2.3bn, ended up costing more than £20bn and was eventually scrapped. As Jonathan Ashworth points out, most GPs are using out of date IT systems.
Then there are fears over privacy. Put simply, people don’t trust anyone—government or private company—to look after their data, particularly if it is held on a computer.
Finally, Brexit will have a major impact—not just in terms of the state of our economy, but also on the research collaboration that is possible with other European scientists.
Smarter medicine will eventually save lives, but not necessarily money. That is always promised in the NHS but it never works out that way. Nye Bevan said creating the NHS itself would save money within a few years. And we all know how that ended.