Can New Technology Transform Healthcare?

Can New Technology Transform Healthcare? was the title of this year’s Great Debate organised by the Engineering Institutions in the Thames Valley and held at University of Reading on 13th March 2019.  As Professor Stuart Green from University of Reading, who chaired the event, said in his introduction that healthcare is something that we will all need at some stage in our lives and technology is vital to meet the challenge of our rising expectations. 

Professor Rachel McCrindle from University of Reading spoke about the importance of understanding human computer interaction (HCI) in designing new systems.  Users need to be central to the design process along with clinical experts to ensure that systems are easy to learn and use and deliver real benefits in a safe manner.  She noted that stroke patients undergoing rehabilitation tend to make good progress in hospital but less so when they return home and systems to guide and encourage them to continue to recover are showing considerable promise.

Dr Lawrence Petalidis, an expert in digital change and innovation spoke about the challenges in developing new technology systems and devices and gaining approval and acceptance for their use.  The health sector is very complex with competing priorities.  Innovation needs a range of skills beyond just the technical skills needed to develop the technology and this includes both the clinical knowledge to understand how it can be deployed effectively and an understanding of the commercial realities.   Adoption needs people who think beyond their immediate role.

Dr Richard Dybowski, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) specialist from the University of Cambridge, spoke about the role of AI and Machine Learning.  He highlighted examples of how these can be used; through incorporation into ‘virtual assistants’ to reduce administration time and improve record keeping and allow clinicians to spend more time with patients, in predicting health problems and allowing early diagnosis of conditions and in providing better information on whether a drug under development will be successful and have limited side effects.  He noted that regulation is generally slow to recognise the issues raised by new technology which slows development and adoption.

Dr Helen Meese, Managing Director of the Care Machine Ltd, spoke about the challenges of getting new technology introduced into practice and doing this safely.  She noted that we are living longer and crucially expecting to stay active for much longer which is raising demand.  The NHS has a very complex structure and this includes the way that it is funded.  Also, gaining approval to use technology is a lengthy task and these factors combine to slow adoption.  She highlighted a number of examples and adoption tends to be easier where gains are clear, for example a monitor to detect the development of pressure sores results in shorter hospital stays.  She focused on the small number of engineers working within hospitals in a clinical setting with none at senior levels and thus able to advise on the adoption and selection of technology.

There were a wide range of questions to the panel after their presentations, from engineers, health professionals and those with personal experience of health issues that could be tackled with new technology and not always were.  Particular points raised were concern about the maintenance of legacy systems in a field where technology is evolving rapidly, access to datasets to allow AI systems to be developed, issues around how rapidly information on new technology circulates and feedback on how effective it is and how the UK compares internationally.

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