It is projected that, by 2050, there will be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and older in the UK — a population roughly equivalent to the size of London. With greater life expectancy comes a higher likelihood of experiencing multiple chronic health conditions.
Meanwhile, NHS staff numbers are failing to keep pace with healthcare demand. Currently, NHS trusts report a shortfall of more than 100,000 staff, which is likely to increase with time, leaving the existing workforce significantly overstretched.
In the context of budget cuts and with the possibilities of digitalisation being seemingly endless, the latest research from Siemens Financial Services (SFS) draws on the views of healthcare experts from around the world to identify which investment area predicted to bring the greatest and quickest value to healthcare systems in the next 5 years.
The results revealed next-generation (digitalised and/or mobile) diagnostics to be a crucial investment area for digitalisation between now and 2025. Amid a shortage of radiologists, digitalisation is already improving both the management of diagnostic capabilities as well as the performance of diagnostic equipment itself.
Recognising the potential of digitalisation, in 2019 the UK government pledged to invest £250 million in artificial intelligence (AI) research, also announcing the creation of NHSX, a new unit bringing together experts in the technological, digital and data industry.
As part of this digital revolution, the NHS has rolled out a new AI-driven health-data programme, which aims to improve the early detection and prevention of diseases such as cancer and dementia. Using big data analytics of historical scan information, algorithms are built to automatically detect anomalous tissues and highlight these results to the radiographer — allowing faster and more accurate diagnoses and alleviating some of the pressure on clinicians.
Such automation naturally captures and deploys best practice standards of diagnostic interpretation that create consistency and reduce unwarranted variations. More consistent diagnostic standards are then linked to precision therapies based on the patient’s unique phenotypic and genetic characteristics.
Further evidence of the government’s investment in AI came in November 2018 with the announcement of a long-term plan to incorporate the opening of five new medical centres for digital pathology and imaging. Based in Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London, in universities and NHS facilities, the clinics will be equipped with digitalised medical imaging.
Introducing AI into the healthcare system will speed up diagnosis, providing the patients with better services while easing the burden on the NHS. Last year, for example a hospital in Leeds celebrated a milestone in the digitalisation of cancer diagnostics.
Drawing on digitally scanned pathology slides, UK pathologists can now easily identify whether the slide shows evidence of cancer. By 2018, the hospital had digitally scanned 200,000 slides, enabling faster and more accurate diagnoses and bypassing challenges relating to the transportation and storage of slides.
These are just a few examples among many of how AI and big data are improving healthcare outcomes. Mobile diagnostics can also digitally link devices between different healthcare institutions, thereby maximising their usage rate while also improving access to diagnostics for more remote communities.
Considering that the NHS deals with one million patients every 36 hours, it comes as no surprise that accelerating and improving diagnoses through new generation diagnostics has been identified as a priority investment area.
Money, money, money
The cost of investing in new generation diagnostics, however, is significant — £1.17 billion in the UK during the next 5 years. Evidently, investing in this area alone will require considerable capital investment, which typically goes beyond the normal capital budgets in healthcare that hover around the 5% mark of total operating budgets.
If healthcare systems were to buy the technology required for digital transformation outright, this would tie up a high proportion of funds needed for urgent operating expenditure. In today’s pressurised healthcare environment, many healthcare institutions are therefore turning towards private sector financing tools to acquire the necessary equipment.
Specialist financiers offer a wide range of financing tools designed to achieve digital transformation, such as allowing healthcare bodies to pay to use the new generation technology rather than having to buy it outright in a one-off capital sum.
Even a standalone equipment unit will require maintenance and service, but enterprise-wide solutions may bundle these into a single regular charge. Using their knowledge of the healthcare sector and its underlying technologies, they can structure financing arrangements that accommodate equipment, software, integration costs and installation — all into a single monthly payment structure.
Most healthcare institutions are increasing their deployment of pay-for-usage arrangements around a particular piece of equipment or individual facility – usually based on some form of leasing structure. These allow the monthly cost of access to essential digitalised technology to be aligned with the rate of benefit being gained, such as reduced diagnostic error rates, improved time per procedure, more rapid triage, and wider access to healthcare services.
As demand for healthcare increases, new financial solutions are required for healthcare institutions to keep up with the pace of digital transformation and provide patients with improved healthcare outcomes (without using precious capital).
If healthcare organisations do not invest in digital transformation, they are effectively denying important benefits to taxpayers and patients, whether in terms of improved patient outcomes, operational efficiencies or access to personalised precision medicine.
Earlier, more accurate diagnosis and intervention, followed by precision therapies, reduces the proportion of morbidities that become acute or chronic. Through smart finance solutions, healthcare systems may begin to invest in new generation diagnostics — and other key technologies — and reap the benefits of digitalisation without freezing unacceptable levels of funding.