With consumers taking ever more interest in their own health, the demand for innovative health services is building. Collating the views of industry experts,Dr Eliot Forsterconsiders how disruptive 'Uber-thinking' could impact healthcare

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Advances in global electronic connectivity – especially the rise of smart devices and the
Internet of Things giving access to information and online services virtually anywhere – have increased pressure on businesses to deliver faster, better services.

One clear example of this new thinking is the Uber transportation model, which has revolutionised the taxi market in major cities around the globe by allowing the location of available drivers to be viewed in real time.

The advantages of Uber-style services are clear – they are intelligent, standardised and instant. In taxi terms, only vehicles available for hire are shown, a minimum level of service is guaranteed and the network is almost entirely automated. By ensuring a more streamlined operation while reducing overheads, companies are able to provide an extremely rapid and cost-effective service with minimal user input. The resulting popularity can be extremely disruptive to established markets as consumer demand effectively overrides resistance from existing suppliers.

Instant feedback
The rise of social media means that consumers are accustomed to providing instant feedback – positive or negative – on everything from fast food to public transport to ambulance waiting times. Combined with an increased awareness of the performance of individual hospitals and Trusts through the publication of KPI data, there is continuous community pressure to improve healthcare services. As a result, the clinical sector is far from immune to 'Uber thinking' and we are beginning to see novel uses of technology to overcome traditional limitations.

One of the earliest and probably best-known examples of technology-driven change in healthcare is the development of home blood-glucose meters for people with diabetes. By allowing patients to monitor their glucose levels – through delivery of real-time, precise and personalised information – the technology has dramatically improved the management of Type 1 diabetes and significantly reduced the burden on hospital and community care providers. Although highly portable glucose monitors have existed for many years, the latest generation of devices take full advantage of technological developments, offering connectivity to wearable devices and smartphones, as well as online databases and communities. 

Another development gaining traction is the use of remote monitoring technologies, such as wearable heart monitors for post-MI patients, particularly in remote areas without local diagnostic services. Unlike the user-operated glucose monitors, these fully automated devices continuously monitor key health parameters and transmit the data for interpretation and analysis via wireless or mobile networks. Alerts and advice can then be sent back to the patient, enabling potentially life-saving short-term interventions and long-term improvements in both management and survival rates. Key benefits are that medical staff can review data from numerous patients from a central location, reducing resource requirements, and improvements in patient engagement and education, helping to put the patients in control of their own care.

What's next?
So far, the scope of these solutions has been limited, mostly streamlining existing pathways and services, and there are several reasons for this, from a lack of education to poor funding for new technologies. However, a major factor is institutional resistance to change; people will not support any new initiative that could lead to their own role becoming redundant. 

Consequently, as with Uber, major innovation is likely to come from new suppliers rather than established healthcare providers. Working in collaboration with these new players – taking advantage of the services they offer to transform working practices – will provide a unique opportunity to establish new cultures and approaches, as well as gaining valuable experience and insight into the possibilities of digital healthcare without having to develop their own resources using already limited budgets. 

Outside of patient care, there are a number of opportunities for technology to help match supply and demand, including the use of interim personnel to cover both planned and unplanned staff absences. For example, an Uber-style solution that, for a pre-determined fee, could show the availability of clinical staff directly employed within the same Trust could be more efficient and cost-effective than using external agencies to fill temporary vacancies. The relatively low overheads required for such a system could provide significant savings for the NHS, with the added benefit that these 'additional' staff would already be familiar with both the Trust and its practices. 

The same approach could be applied to recruitment for clinical trials; a central database of local volunteers, with details of their clinical and family histories, could allow research organisations to rapidly recruit cohorts without the need for protracted pre-qualification. Organisations such as MedCity – a collaboration between local government and leading academic centres in London – are already moving in this direction through a 'low tech' solution to connect research organisations, biotechs and volunteers, and the rise of digital services will make this process far more streamlined in the future. 

Whatever form such services take, it is crucial for organisations to make the most of the digital revolution to avoid being left behind.

Dr Eliot Forster is CEO of UK-based biotech company, Immunocore.

The topics featured in this article were discussed at a recent CEO Breakfast Forum hosted by specialist recruitment company PiR at the British Library, chaired by Dr Forster.

(Click to read the full version of this article in the online magazine)