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We need to rethink healthcare to move from cure to prevention

Technology means quality healthcare is accessible for all, and coronavirus shows us the time to act is now

While Clap for Carers has stopped, the whole country still applauds the dedication and bravery of our NHS staff battling on the frontline. Unfortunately, just applauding at the time of crisis is not enough. What the pandemic has shown is that we need a fundamental rethink of our health systems.

To give a practical example of a rethink, I still remember a time when cars only went to the garage if they broke down. But now we have early-warning sensors in our cars and service them every year, to catch problems. Changing the oil or replacing a bolt may cost a few pounds, but let the problems mount and suddenly it’s thousands of pounds for a complete overhaul.

It seems obvious to take simple, preventive action to maintain our machines. Yet for some reason, we don’t do the same with the most valuable assets we have, our lives.

Healthcare doesn’t do monitoring, continuous data analysis, servicing – it’s set up to fix people when things have already gone wrong.

And it’s not working.

Around the world, doctors are in short supply, costs are spiralling and access to high-quality care is declining. Meanwhile, demand continues to rise.

We need a system built around wellness and not sickness. The Covid pandemic showed us that we cannot rely on waiting for people to get sick and then deal with their emergencies.

Instead, we need to spend our efforts on preventing those crises and emergencies from happening. We learnt to put emphasis on what mattered most and combined human expertise with the accessibility of everyday technologies and data to help people proactively manage their health and prevent the crisis.

It sounds grand, and maybe even far-fetched, but this pandemic has shown us what we can do.

Our NHS partners needed to ensure their time-pressed staff were looking after the most needy patients.

So we built a Covid-19 Care Assistant that can give information and reassurance to the large number of patients who need it, and find the much smaller group of patients who need to speak to a doctor 24/7, have their recovery monitored, and be provided with a care plan.

It can help with huge groups of people and, most importantly, allows the same number of frontline staff to help a much greater number of people, all whilst making sure that people get the care they need.

We’re already seeing that around 80pc of people who use the Covid-19 Care Assistant don’t actually need to speak to a clinician – that’s a huge release valve for any clinical resource. This service now covers 8pc of England’s population and is launched to millions of members in Canada, the US and beyond.

This shows what we can do for other health “crises” that we have learned to ignore. Mental health is fast becoming our silent killer pandemic. Around 6,000 people died from suicide in the UK last year, around 800,000 worldwide.

Just think how many of those could have been prevented by giving people the support they needed earlier on. Or consider chronic diseases such as asthma or diabetes, which affects 10pc of people aged over 40 in the UK.

For most of these challenges, the common response is to wait for the patient to hit an emergency and then “cure” them.

Instead, we should focus on proactive testing, care planning, monitoring and, when necessary, early intensive intervention. All whilst helping everyone else to stay healthy.

A change of thinking like this could have a profound impact. The benefits are two-fold: for society, better health equals better quality of life.

For healthcare providers, a healthier society reduces demand - a huge issue here in the UK. Less demand means better care for those that really need it.

It could make healthcare more affordable and accessible to people everywhere, including the billions who were previously being left behind.

But this is only a hint of how things could change and how we really could move to prevention rather than cure.

A perfect storm is brewing that will merge the new discoveries in quantum computing, AI, mixed reality, robotics, organ reconstruction, genetic engineering and synthetic biology, to help us shape new possibilities hitherto unimaginable.

For the first time, it is possible to dream of making quality healthcare accessible and affordable for every person on Earth.

But science and technology by itself won’t transform healthcare.

What is required is a systemic change in priorities. Now that we have seen what can be done in meeting one crisis, there is no excuse to ignore the chronic crisis that we have been struggling with before this one.

Covid-19 will pass but the lesson of it is that the healthcare services of the world need to evolve. We have done it with our cars. We can do it with our lives.

 

Ali Parsa is founder of Babylon Health