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To everyone working long and stressful hours on the frontline of healthcare; thank you for the sacrifices you’re making every day to help others in their moments of need. Your dedication, commitment and courage have our deepest gratitude and admiration.

Also, our heartfelt thanks go to all key workers who are unselfishly providing essential services, which are helping all of us through this coronavirus outbreak. Your resolution and mettle make a huge difference to our daily lives and we hold you in the highest esteem.

 

#coronavirus #CoVID-19  #frontlinehealthcareworkers #keyworkers #healthcare

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  • The coronavirus CoVID-19 has created the greatest health-cum-economic-cum-societal crisis in history and put unprecedented pressure on overstretched and unprepared healthcare systems
  • Before the coronavirus outbreak, primary care in England already was in crisis, fuelled by an aging population, a large and increasing demand for its services and a shrinking supply of health professionals
  • In 2019, before the outbreak, 75% of primary care doctors (GPs) across 540 clinics in England were over the age of 55 and nearing retirement and a large percentage of newly trained GPs were seeking employment abroad
  • Patients who could not get GP appointments used A&E departments as convenient drop-in clinics for minor ailments, which significantly increased healthcare costs and burden
  • For decades successive UK governments have tried in vain to transform the nation’s primary care services predicated upon face-to-face patient-doctor consultations
  • Several well-funded long-term national plans advocated increased digitization of some routine primary care services
  • But before the coronavirus outbreak only 1% of all primary care consultations were online
  • What these national plans could not achieve in decades appears to have been achieved in days by the UK’s NHS’s response to the coronavirus outbreak
  • Today, millions of patients in England are having face-to-face appointments with their GPs replaced by telephone or video consultations
  • Could CoVID-19 transform the UK’s traditional primary care model?

 

Introduction
 
The UK’s National Health Service’s (NHS) response to the coronavirus CoVID-19 outbreak might improve the nation’s crisis ridden primary care service. This became evident in March 2020, when the UK government ordered all citizens except key workers to stay at home. At the same time, NHS England announced its ‘battle plan’ for CoVID-19, which recommended that England’s 7,000 primary care clinics start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible.  In a matter of days, millions of patients had face-to-face appointments with their GP replaced by telephone or video consultations. If this shift to online consultations becomes permanent then the NHS’s response to the coronavirus would have achieved in days what well-funded national healthcare plans, such as the NHS Digital First Primary Care drive, could not achieve in decades.
 
Future healthcare is digital
 
For years, the benefits of online doctor-patient consultations have been advocated by  Devi Shetty, a world-renowned heart surgeon and  founder and chairman of Narayana Health, one India’s largest hospital groups.  According to Shetty, “The next biggest thing in healthcare is not going to be a ‘magic’ pill, a faster scanner or a new operation but information technology (IT). IT will dramatically change the way a health professional will interact with a patient. Every step of patient care will be informed by a protocol embedded in a smartphone. This will make healthcare safer for the patient and remove a lot of traditional dace-to-face healthcare activities and shift healthcare away from the clinic and into the home. Doctors and patients don't need to be together; they could be in their respective homes and effective consultations could take place online.” (see video below)
 
The next ‘big thing’ in healthcare
 
The coronavirus CoVID-19
 
In December 2019, initial reports of a new coronavirus - CoVID-19 - emerged  when patients from Wuhan, the sprawling capital city of China’s Hubei province, which has a population of some 11m, presented with pneumonia of unknown origin. By December 2019 the virus had spread to other countries and on 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization characterised the outbreak as a pandemic. CoVID-19 is an illness caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before but is believed to come from animals.There have been other coronaviruses. For example, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing about 800, but it soon ran itself out. Mers first emerged in 2012, cases of which have been occurring sporadically since. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who were infected. CoVID-19 is different to Sars and Mers in that the spectrum of disease is broader, with around 80% of cases leading to a mild infection. There may also be many people carrying the disease and displaying no symptoms, making it even harder to control. CoVID-19 affects your lungs and airways and can cause pneumonia. So, people with an  inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are particularly vulnerable; as are people with weak immune systems, which make them susceptible to infections that might be more severe or harder to treat. In January 2020, China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission of CoVID-19, and there have been such transmissions in countries throughout the world. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer a general feeling of being unwell, fever, dry cough, tiredness, breathing difficulties and a loss of taste and smell. In roughly 14% of cases the virus causes severe disease, including pneumonia and shortness of breath. In about 5% of patients it is critical, leading to respiratory failure, septic shock and multiple organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of your immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health. Initially, scientists were challenged to accurately assess how dangerous CoVID-19 was because there were inadequate data. A challenge  to  collecting data was because of a shortage of tests and also because people who had contracted the coronavirus were emitting, or “shedding,” infectious viruses early in the progression of the illness; sometimes before they develop symptoms.

The 1918 Spanish Influenza 
remains the most devastating virus in modern history. The disease swept around the globe and is estimated to have caused between 50m and 100m deaths. A cousin of the same virus was also behind the 2009 swine flu outbreak, thought to have killed as many as 0.58m. Other major viral outbreaks include the Asian flu in 1957, which led to roughly 2m deaths and the Hong Kong flu, which killed 1m people 11 years later. 

 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary is produced by HealthPad, which is an online health solutions company. (see below). We begin the Commentary by briefly describing the underlying reasons for the UK’s primary care crisis, which include: (i)  the changing and aging population and the consequent increased demand for healthcare, (ii) the shrinking supply of health professionals, and (iii) failing national initiatives to improve the provision of primary care. We then draw attention to some well funded national plans, whose intentions have been to harness the power of information and digital strategies to reform and improve primary care services in England. We also cite research, which suggests that these plans have failed. The Commentary briefly describes a number of innovative online healthcare solution companies, (HealthPad is one).  The majority of these are private initiatives, which have taken advantage of the UK’s high smartphone penetration rates and advanced wireless networks to enter the UK’s healthcare market with an intention to transform the sector. Notwithstanding, to-date the overall impact of these companies has been marginal, due in part, to the general resistance of private enterprises playing a significant role in England’s public NHS, which offers free healthcare to all citizens at the point of care. However, they represent a nascent UK online healthcare solutions market, which is well positioned to benefit from the nation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced more primary care services to be delivered online. To increase their footprint these companies, which are largely driven by technology, will need to become more strategic and consolidate. And this will take time. We conclude the Commentary by looking to China and WeDoctor to understand the potential that online services can make to the delivery of healthcare in England. WeDoctor is a Chinese mobile app launched in 2010 to help patients book doctor appointments. Over the past decade it has added more functions to help unclog China’s fragmented and bureaucratic healthcare system and has become a US$5.5bn healthcare company, which connects some 210m registered users with 360,000 doctors.
 
UK’s primary care crisis
 
There are three drivers to the UK’s primary care crisis: (i) the changing and aging population, which increases the demand for healthcare, (ii)  the shrinking supply of healthcare professionals to a point where GP workloads are becoming unsafe, and (iii) failing national initiatives to improve the provision of primary care. Let us briefly describe these.
 
Changing and aging population
 
The UK’s population is changing and aging, which is fuelled by improvements in life expectancy and a decrease in fertility. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, in 2016, there were 12m UK residents aged 65 years and over, representing 18% of the total population. 25 years before, in 1991, there were 9m, accounting for 16% of the population. By 2040, it is projected that there will be an additional 8m people aged 65 years and over in the UK: a population roughly the size of present-day London, which will account for 25% of the total population.
 
A report by Deloitte,  a consultancy, suggests that as people age so their propensity for illness increases and more than a quarter of the UK’s population of some 66m have long-term chronic illnesses. This places a significant extra burden on the nation’s overstretched primary care services by utilizing about half of all GP appointments. Deloitte’s analysis is supported by a British Medical Association’s 2019 GP Patient Survey, which found that GP clinics are now caring for 0.72m more patients than they were in 2018. Findings of a 2016 report by the UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners (RGCP), suggest that GPs see 1.3m patients a day and do more than 370m consultations annually: 60m more than in 2010. A research study on GP productivity carried out by the King’s Fund and also published in 2016, suggested that between 2010 and 2015 the total number of telephone consultations increased by 15%, but still only accounted for 1% of all patient-doctor consultations.
 
Shrinking supply of GPs
 
As the UK’s population has grown and aged and the consequent demand for healthcare has increased, so there has been a sustained fall in the number of GPs. This  dynamic is described in a Nuffield Trust report published in May 2019, which confirms the findings of a joint report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation for the NHS Confederation, which concluded that, “The fall in GPs per person reflects insufficient numbers previously being trained and going on to join NHS England, failure to recruit enough from abroad and more GPs leaving for early retirement”. As to the future, a  2019 report by three leading think tanks - the Nuffield Trust, the Health Foundation and the King's Fund - predicts that GP shortages in England will almost triple to 7,000 by 2024. According to NHS Statistics, Facts and Figures, currently there are just over 42,000 GPs working in England, down by nearly 1,500 since 2016.
 
Failure to stop or slow these trends means today, primary care services in England struggle with staff shortages and a rising demand for care. A 2019 Pulse Magazine survey found that  GPs in England are seeing more patients than is safe. A probe undertaken by The Times in 2019 suggested that the  national shortage of GPs has left some surgeries with one permanent doctor caring for as many as 11,000 patients and one in 10 GPs are seeing up to 60 patients a day, double the number considered safe.
 
GPs across the UK work an average 11-hour day. In that time, they typically see patients for 8 hours and spend the other 3 on administrative tasks such as checking test results and reading letters sent by hospitals.  A 2019 British Medical Association survey found that more than 80% of GPs said the pressure to attend to multiple tasks at once meant they were unable to guarantee safe care, while 91% said excessive workload was the main reason the NHS was struggling to recruit enough staff. The situation has resulted in patients having to wait longer - up to three weeks - for a GP consultation. It seems reasonable to suggest that GPs with too many patients and using traditional face-to-face delivery methods will fail in their duty of care, which obliges them to inform patients about their health and reach shared clinical decisions about treatments. This requires that patients understand their condition/s and are well informed. In many cases, a 10-minute  face-to-face GP consultation might not be the best way to achieve this.
 
Failing national initiatives to improve primary care
 
Subsequent UK governments have struggled to reduce the primary care crisis with well funded national plans. In 2019, the British Medical Journal published findings of a survey to report UK GPs’ views and experience of national healthcare initiatives introduced in England to address the workforce crisis in general practice. The survey was conducted in the same region as a similar survey undertaken in 2014. This allows for a comparative analysis to see how GPs’ views have changed over time. Findings confirm that primary care in England remains in crisis and suggest that numerous national initiatives to improve general practice are perceived by GPs as, “reactive in approach”. To reduce the primary care crisis, respondents suggested, “more GPs and better education of the public". 
 
The UK’s NHS
 
Healthcare in the UK is mainly provided by the National Health Service (NHS), which is a vast public institution funded largely from general taxation to the tune of some £134bn (US$161bn) a year. Created in 1948, the NHS  provides free health services at the point of care for everyone living in the UK and has become the largest single payer health system in the world, and the biggest employer in the UK with 1.2m full time equivalent (FTE) workers, which is the fifth-largest workforce in the world. NHS England is a vast bureaucratic and fragmented organisation, which has proven difficult to change. Private provision of NHS services has always been controversial, even though some services, such as dentistry, optical care and pharmacy, have been provided by the private sector to the NHS for decades and most GP practices are private partnerships. It is challenging to determine how much the NHS spends each year on the private sector because central bodies do not hold detailed information on individual contracts with service providers, especially where these contracts may cover relatively small amounts of activity and spending. Notwithstanding, estimates suggest the share of the NHS’s total revenue budget that is spent on private providers is about 7.3%. 

National plans to improve the NHS
 
The planning and authorising of NHS services is the responsibility of regional Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). Although CCGs are constantly changing because of mergers, as of 2019, there were 191 CCGs in England supporting about 7,000 primary care clinics, some 42,000 GPs and about 15,800 FTE nurses who work in GP clinics, and 1,257 hospitals, which include NHS Trust-managed hospitals and private hospitals that provide services to the NHS. In total, the NHS employs around 150,000 doctors  and over 320,000 nurses and midwives.
 
Successive UK governments have been aware of the impact of technological advances, changing healthcare needs and societal developments on healthcare and have introduced a succession of well-funded national plans to change and improve the NHS. For example, in June 2018, the UK’s Prime Minister announced a new five-year funding settlement for the NHS that amounted to an extra £20.5bn (US$25.2bn) between 2019 and 2024, which represents a 3.4% real average annual increase.
 
NHS long term plan to transform primary care
 
To unlock the funding, national bodies were asked to develop a long-term plan to help the NHS cut costs and improve services. The suggested plan articulated the need to integrate care in order to meet the needs of a changing population and was in line with the Forward View, a planning document published in 2014 and the General practice forward view,which was first published in 2016 and updated in subsequent years. The long-term plan committed the government to an extra £2.4bn (US$3bn) a year to speed up the transformation of primary care and suggested GP clinics join together to form networks typically covering 30,000 to 50,000 patients and provide them with multidisciplinary integrated care. The plan also suggested ‘significant changes’ in the existing performance management and payment of NHS GPs [the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF)] in order to encourage more personalised care.
 
NHS long term plans and private online healthcare solution companies have delivered little change
 
Three of five principal objectives of the latest NHS long term plan are to: (i) “give people more control over their own health and the care they receive”;  (ii) “increase the contribution to tackling some of the most significant causes of ill health, including new action to help people stop smoking, overcome drinking problems and avoid Type 2 diabetes”, and (iii) “provide more convenient access to services and health information for patients”.

The plan emphasises the importance of developing digital services, and recommends that within five years, all patients should be able to access GP consultations via a telephone or online. This goal is supported by NHS Digital, which is the national information and technology partner to the UK’s health and social care system. Its mission is to harness the power of information and technology to improve healthcare. Over the past decade there has been an increasing number of innovative online private  healthcare solutions companies entering the market. (see below). Notwithstanding, these and the NHS’s well-funded national plans, have failed to dent the primary care crisis by slowing the vast and escalating demand for healthcare and reversing the shrinking supply of healthcare professionals. So, for the past two decades at least, the NHS has tended to operate on the cusp of a crisis.
 
The death of distance
 
According to Deloitte, the UK has more than 90% smartphone penetration. The main driver of high smartphone adoption rates is the take-up among older age groups. By 2023 smartphone ownership among 55-to-75-year-olds will reach 85% in the UK, and the difference in smartphone penetration by age will disappear. Further, the UK’s smartphone market has seen a greater variety of choice of models and the introduction of faster and more reliable wireless networks. This has benefited the online private healthcare solution companies, which have entered the UK market to provide varying degrees of qualified online healthcare information, consultations, networking opportunities, triage and Q&A. According to Shetty, “A doctor only needs to touch a patient if s/he is going to operate on that patient. If a doctor doesn’t need to operate, a doctor-patient consultation can take place remotely. For a patient-doctor communication distance doesn’t matter.” (see video below)
 

 A doctor only needs to touch a patient if s/he is going to operate on that patient
 
Innovative online healthcare solution enterprises
 
The new online healthcare solution enterprises are a combination of private, public and charitable initiatives, which are well positioned to contribute to the transformation of the UK’s traditional primary care model and include: Babylon Health, which provides remote consultations with doctors and healthcare professionals via text and video; BioBeatsa workplace wellbeing platform designed to empower and improve mental health; Docly, a digital messaging healthcare service, which is a spin-off of Min Doktor; Doctorlink, which partners with payers, healthcare professionals and pharmacists to provide a 24-7 platform for NHS patients to assess symptoms; DrDoctor, a patient engagement platform, which enables patients to book, change and cancel their appointments; EggPlant, a software testing and monitoring company, which helps to streamline patient activities; Dr Fox, an online primary care clinic and pharmacy service; Gogodoc, an online GP video consultation service with possible follow-up home visits; Healthcare Communications UK, which provides appointment management software and patient experience surveys; HealthPad, an online platform that manages and distributes healthcare video information between health providers and patients in order to improve outcomes and cut costs, and has accrued a proprietary content library of over 6,000 short videos contributed by leading clinicians that address peoples FAQs across some 30 therapeutic pathways, (HealthPad is the publisher of this Commentary).  HealthTalksOnline, an events and community portal for health; HealthUnlocked, a social networking service that offers peer support to help people manage their health; Healum provides healthcare professionals with a software, which enables them to support and motivate their patients to better manage their conditions; LIVI, provides GP video consultations; Medshra platform for medical professionals to discover, discuss and share clinical cases and medical images; Microtest Health, a health informatics company that provides practice management systems for NHS GP surgeries. MSKnote Limited creates clinical applications for healthcare professionals and patients with a focus on musculoskeletal conditions; MyWay Digital Health provides advice and solutions to help patients better manage diabetes; NHS.uk/conditions provides online text-based information and advice about medical conditions; NHS 111, a free-to-call medical helpline; the Now Healthcare Group, a GP video consultation platform and tele-pharmacy; Patient Access, which started by enabling patients to book GP appointments online and order repeat prescriptions and has evolved to allow patients to connect with their GPs remotely and access their medical records online; Patientinfo provides patients and health professionals with online health information. PatientAccess and Patientinfo are subsidiaries of EMIS Health, a leading supplier of  software used by NHS England; Patients Know Best, a social enterprise, which provides patients with access to their medical records and information about treatments; PatientsLikeMe, an online service that helps patients find people with similar health conditions in order to take actions that are expected to improve outcomes; Push Doctor, an online video consultation service; SaySo Medical is a digital communications agency, which connects people in order to improve their health; SystmOne, a centrally hosted computer system that provides primary care professionals with electronic patient health records in real time at the point of care; uMotif, a platform that captures electronic patient-reported outcomes data across a range of conditions and works with pharmaceutical companies to measure patient’s health, outcomes and experience; Unminda workplace mental health platform designed to  empower organisations and employees to improve their mental wellbeing; Visiba Care, a digital solutions company, which provides communication and administration software for healthcare practices; VisionHealth provides NHS primary care professionals with software solutions; VisualDX provides clinical decision support systems to enhance diagnoses and therapeutic decisions in order to improve patient safety; WebMD, an online publisher of healthcare news and information, and Zava, an online GP and pharmacy service.
 
 Technologically heavy and strategically light
 
Despite a significant number of online healthcare solution enterprises entering the market and the fact that some provide services to millions of people in the UK, this market segment is in its infancy and fragmented. All the initiatives mentioned above have been advantaged by the NHS’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Notwithstanding, to permanently increase their footprint and significantly influence primary care in England, barriers to private enterprises and to online services will need to be reduced; and private companies in this segment will need to act more strategically and consolidate.
 
Most of these online healthcare service providers are technologically heavy and strategically light. For private companies in this market to grow and increase their influence on the NHS they will need to increase their focus on profitability and scale, which will require them to become more strategic and develop merger-integration skills. To become a dominant player, a company will have to successfully consolidate. Speed and merger competence are paramount. Companies that capture critical ground early and move up the consolidation curve the fastest will be successful. Enterprises that are slow to consolidate will become acquisition targets and disappear. Companies that stay out of the consolidation contest altogether will not survive.

A Chinese example
 
History has shown that many short-term emergency measures have a tendency to  become permanent fixtures. Thus, the UK’s response to the coronavirus CoVID-19 outbreak might permanently reduce the barriers to moving routine primary care tasks to innovative private online enterprises.
 
In an attempt to fully appreciate the potential of increasing online primary healthcare services in England, consider WeDoctor, a Chinese mobile app launched in 2010 by artificial intelligence expert Jerry Liao. Originally called Guahao (Mandarin for “booking”), WeDoctor started as a simple booking platform that made it easier for patients to make appointments with doctors. From these humble beginnings WeDoctor grew by adding extra functions such as reminders for regular medical checks, screening, prescriptions and online diagnoses and consultations. This helped to unclog China’s fragmented and bureaucratic healthcare system and made quality healthcare more accessible to the average person.
 
WeDoctor secured backing from Tencent Holdings, a Chinese multinational conglomerate, Sequoia Capital, the Goldman Sachs Group and the insurer AIA Group. In 2018, the company raised US$0.5bn in a private financing round at a valuation of US$5.5bn. Today, WeDoctor has more than 210m registered users mainly in China for its online appointment booking, prescription and diagnosis services and is linked to about 3,200 hospitals and 360,000 doctors. In March 2020, at the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic, it was reported that, in the latter half of 2020, WeDoctor intends to raise HK$1bn in an IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange at a valuation of HK$10bn.
 
Although NHS England is much smaller than China’s healthcare provision, it is similarly fragmented and bureaucratic. The UK online solutions enterprises described in this Commentary have significant potential simply by helping to reduce GPs large and increasing burden of administration while increasing the connectivity between patients and GPs. This will help GPs to concentrate on what they have been trained to do and improve healthcare for people in most need.
 
Takeaways
 
Over the past two decades, legacy primary care systems and attitudes in the UK have slowed the uptake of online healthcare solutions. Notwithstanding, the NHS’s response to the coronavirus CoVID-19 outbreak might prove to have helped to transform the UK’s traditional face-to-face primary care model by making GPs deliver some of their services online. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, stressed how the Chinese had responded to the coronavirus outbreak by significantly increasing the amount of medical care the nation provides online.  In light of the discussion in this Commentary, be minded that in Mandarin the word “crisis” is denoted by two characters: 危机, one means ‘disaster’ and the other means ‘opportunity’.
 
 
#coronavirus #coVID-19 #NHSEngland #NHS #pandemic #primarycarecrisis #ChinaWeDoctor #WeDoctor #DigitalHealthcare 
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  • Everyone connected with healthcare supports interoperability saying it improves care, reduces medical errors and lowers costs
  • But interoperability is a long way from reality and electronic patient records are only part of an answer
  • Could Blockchain a technology disrupting financial systems resolve interoperability in healthcare?
  • Blockchain is an open-source decentralized “accounting” platform that underpins crypto currencies
  • Blockchain does not require any central data hubs, which in healthcare have been shown to be easily breached
  • Blockchain technology creates a virtual digital ledger that could automatically record every interaction with patient data in a cryptographically verifiable manner
  • Some experts believe that Blockchain could improve diagnosis, enhance personalised therapies, and prevent highly prevalent devastating and costly diseases
  • Why aren’t healthcare leaders pursuing Blockchain with vigour?
 
Why Blockchain technology will not disrupt healthcare

Blockchain technology is disrupting financial systems by enhancing the reconciliation of global transactions and creating an immutable audit trail, which significantly enhances the ability to track information at lower costs, while protecting confidentiality. Could Blockchain do something similar for healthcare and resolve the challenges of interoperability by providing an inexpensive and enhanced means to immutably track, store, and protect a variety of patient data from multiple sources, while giving different levels of access to health professionals and the public?
 
Blockchain and crypto currencies

You might not have heard of Blockchain, but probably you have heard of bitcoin; an intangible or crypto currency, which was created in 2008 when a programmer called Satoshi Nakamoto (a pseudonym) described bitcoin’s design in a paper posted to a cryptography e-mail list. Then in early 2009 Nakamoto released Blockchain: an open source, global decentralized accounting ledger, which underpins bitcoin by executing and immutably recording transactions without the need of a middleman. Instead of a centrally managed database, copies of the cryptographic balance book are spread across a network and automatically updated as transactions take place. Bitcoin gave rise to other crypto-currencies. Crypto currencies only exist as transactions and balances recorded on a public ledger in the cloud, and verified by a distributed group of computers.
 
Broad support for interoperability
 
Just about everyone connected with healthcare - clinicians, providers, payers, patients and policy makers - support interoperability, suggesting data must flow rapidly, easily and flawlessly through healthcare ecosystems to reduce medical errors, improve diagnosis, enhance patient care, and lower costs. Despite such overwhelming support, interoperability is a long way from a reality. As a result, health providers spend too much time calling other providers about patient information, emailing images and records, and attempting to coordinate care efforts across disjointed and disconnected healthcare systems. This is a significant drain on valuable human resources, which could be more effectively spent with patients or used to remotely monitor patients’ conditions. Blockchain may provide a solution to challenges of interoperability in healthcare.
 
Electronic patient records do not resolve interoperability

A common misconception is that electronic patient records (EPR) resolve interoperability. They do not. EPRs were created to coordinate patient care inside healthcare settings by replacing paper records and filing cabinets. EPRs were not designed as open systems, which can easily collect, amalgamate and monitor a range of medical, genetic and personal information from multiple sources. To realize the full potential and promise of interoperability EPRs need to be easily accessible digitally, and in addition, have the capability to collect and manage remotely generated patient healthcare data as well as pharmacy and prescription information; family-health histories; genomic information and clinical-study data. To make this a reality existing data management conventions need to be significantly enhanced, and this is where Blockchain could help.

 

Blockchain will become a standard technology
 
Think of a bitcoin, or any other crypto currency, as a block capable of storing data. Each block can be subdivided countless times to create subsections. Thus, it is easy to see that a block may serve as a directory for a healthcare provider. Data recorded on a block can be public, but are encrypted and stored across a network. All data are immutable except for additions. Because of these and other capabilities, it seems reasonable to assume that Blockchain may become a standard technology over the next decade.
 
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Future healthcare shock

Blockchain and healthcare

Because crypto currencies are unregulated and sometimes used for money laundering, they are perceived as “shadowy”. However, this should not be a reason for not considering Blockchain technology. 30 corporations, including J.P. Morgan and Microsoft, are uniting to develop decentralized computing networks based on Blockchain technology. Further crypto currencies are approaching the mainstream,  and within the financial sector, there is significant and growing interests in Blockchain technology to improve interoperability. Financial services and healthcare have similar interoperability challenges, but health providers appear reluctant to contemplate fundamental re-design of EPRs; despite the fact that there is a critical need for innovation as genomic data and personalized targeted therapies rise in significance and require advanced data management capabilities. Here are 2 brief examples, which describe how Blockchain is being used in financial services.
 
Blockchain’s use in financial services
 
In October 2017, the State Bank of India (SBI) announced its intention to implement Blockchain technology to improve the efficiency, transparency, security and confidentiality of its transactions while reducing costs. In November 2017, the SBI’s Blockchain partner, Primechain Technologies suggested that the key benefits of Blockchain for banks include, “Greatly improved security, reduced infrastructure cost, greater transparency, auditability and real-time automated settlements.”
 
Dubai, a global city in the United Arab Emirates, is preparing to introduce emCash as a crypto currency, and could become the world’s first Blockchain government by 2020. The changes Dubai is implementing eventually will lead to the end of traditional banking. Driving the transformation is Nasser Saidi, chief economists of the Dubai International Financial Centre, a former vice-governor of the Bank of Lebanon and a former economics and industry minister of that country. Saidi perceives the benefits of Blockchain to include the phasing out of costly traditional infrastructure services such as accounting and auditing.

 
Significant data challenges

Returning to healthcare, there are specific challenges facing interoperability, which include: (i) how to ensure patient records remain secure and are not lost or corrupted given that so many people are involved in the healthcare process for a single patient, and communication gaps and data-sharing issues are pervasive, and (ii) how can health providers effectively amalgamate and monitor genetic, clinical and personal data from a variety of sources, which are required to improve diagnosis, enhance treatments and reduce the burden of devastating and costly diseases. 
 
Vulnerability of patient data

Not only do EPRs fail to resolve these two basic challenges of interoperability they are vulnerable to cybercriminals. Recently there has been an epidemic of computer hackers stealing EPRs. In June 2016 a hacker claimed to have obtained more than 10m health records, and was alleged to be selling them on the dark web. Also in 2016 in the US there were hundreds of breaches involving millions of EPRs, which were reported to the Department of Health and Human Services. The hacking of 2 American health insurers alone, Anthem and Premera Blue Cross, affected some 90m EPRs.
 
In the UK, patient data and NHS England’s computers are no less secure. On 12 May 2017, a relatively unsophisticated ransomware called WannaCry, infected NHS computers and affected the health service’s ability to provide care to patients. In October 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on the impact of WannaCry, which found that 19,500 medical appointments were cancelled, computers at 600 primary care offices were locked and five hospitals had to divert ambulances elsewhere. Amyas Morse, head of the NAO suggests that, “The NHS needs to get their act together to ensure the NHS is better protected against future attacks.”

 
Healthcare legacy systems
 
Despite the potential benefits of Blockchain to healthcare, providers have not worked out fully how to move on from their legacy systems and employ innovative digital technologies with sufficient vigour to effectively enhance the overall quality of care while reducing costs. Instead they tinker at the edges of technologies, and fail to learn from best practices in adjacent industries.  
 
“Doctors and the medical community are the biggest deterrent for change”
 
Devi Shetty, heart surgeon, founder, and Chairperson of Narayana Health articulates this failure“Doctors and the medical community are the biggest deterrent for the penetration of innovative IT systems in healthcare to improve patient care . . . IT has penetrated every industry in the world with the exception of healthcare. The only IT in patient care is software built into medical devices, which doctors can’t stop. Elsewhere there is a dearth of innovative IT systems to enhance care,” see video. Notwithstanding, Shetty believes that, “The future of healthcare is not going to be an extension of the past. The next big thing in healthcare is not going to be a new drug, a new medical device or a new operation. It is going to be IT.”
 
 
Google, Blockchain and healthcare
 
Previous HealthPad Commentaries have suggested that the failure of healthcare providers to fully embrace innovative technologies, especially those associated with patient data, has created an opportunity for giant technology companies to enter the healthcare sector, which shall dis-intermediate healthcare professionals.

In May 2017, Google announced that its AI-powered subsidiary, DeepMind Health, intends to develop the “Verifiable Data Audit”, which uses Blockchain technology to create a digital ledger, which automatically records every interaction with patient data in a cryptographically verifiable manner. This is expected to significantly reduce medical errors since any change or access to the patient data is visible, and both healthcare providers and patients would be able to securely track personal health records in real-time.

 
Takeaways

Blockchain is a new innovative and powerful technology that could play a significant role in overcoming the challenges of interoperability in healthcare, which would significantly help to enhance the quality of care, improve diagnosis, reduce costs and prevent devastating diseases. However, even if Blockchain were the perfect technological solution, which enabled interoperability, change would not happen in the short term. As Max Planck said, “A new scientific innovation does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” While we wait for those who control our healthcare systems to die, billions of people will continue to suffer from preventable lifetime diseases, healthcare costs will escalate, healthcare systems will go bankrupt, and productivity in the general economy will fall.
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  • People are using A&E departments as convenient drop-in clinics for minor ailments because they cannot get GP appointments
  • In January 2017 the British Red Cross said A&E was struggling with a "humanitarian crisis" to keep up with a rush of patients over  the winter
  • UK’s Prime Minister suggests that all GP surgeries should open from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week 
  • Primary care in England is in crisis, fuelled by a large and increasing demand and a shrinking supply of GPs
  • 75% of GPs across 540 general practices over the age of 55 are nearing retirement, and newly trained GPs are seeking employment abroad
  • By 2020 there could be a shortfall of 10,000 GPs in England
  • Curing the primary care crisis would relieve pressure on A&E departments
  • A simple, cheap and easy-to-use online dashboard could help relieve the primary healthcare crisis
 
A smarter approach to the UK’s GP crisis
 
Could the vast and escalating primary care crisis in England be helped with a new and innovative online dashboard, which automatically sends short videos contributed by clinicians to patients’ mobiles to address their FAQs?
 
Dr Seth Rankin an experienced GP thinks it can. Click on the photo below to access a short video, which demonstrates how the dashboard works.

 
 
 

UK’s Secretary of State predicted the healthcare crisis
 
The UK’s Secretary of Health has frequently stressed the urgent need for more innovation in healthcare. In 2015 he said: “If we do not find better, smarter ways to help our growing elderly population remain healthy and independent, our hospitals will be overwhelmed – which is why we need effective, strong and expanding general practice more than ever before in the history of the NHS.
 
An easy and effective way to improve GP services

Most patients don’t remember half of what is said in short GP consultations. This is why videos are so important. Unlike doctors and pamphlets videos never get tired, never wear out, and are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Unlike the Internet, the dashboard provides premium reliable healthcare information, which easily can be consumed by patients and shared among family, friends and carers. The video content can be viewed many times, from anywhere, and at anytime. The dashboard is fully automated [see figure below], relieves GPs of a lot of unnecessary work, and importantly, reports on how patients’ use the different videos,” says Rankin; CEO of the London Doctors Clinic; and formally the managing partner of the Wandsworth Medical Centre, and co-chair of Wandsworth CCG’s Diabetes Group.
 
A fully automated dashboard to improve efficiency and increase the quality of care
 
 
Reducing unnecessary A&E visits

‘The dashboard uses videos of local healthcare professionals because both patients and doctors want to improve their connectivity. The dashboard is embedded with about 120 short, 60 to 80 second, talking-head videos, which address patients’ frequently asked questions. Research suggests that the average attention span for people watching videos on mobiles is between 60 to 80 seconds. The dashboard has been specifically designed to help increase patients’ knowledge of their condition, propel them towards self-management, slow the onset of complications, lower the number of unnecessary visits to A&E, reduce face-time with GPs, and enhance the quality of care,” says Rankin.
 
Essential behavioral techniques

The efficacy of healthcare education is enhanced by embedded behavioral techniques, which nudge people to change their diets and lifestyles, improve self-monitoring of their condition, and increase adherence to medications.  The HealthPad dashboard benefits from such behavioral techniques.
 
Part of comprehensive communications system

The dashboard has been developed by health professionals with significant patient input, and aims to get effective educational content to the largest number of people at the lowest price possible; and without requiring effort from health professionals to mediate or facilitate the flow of the knowledge. To achieve this the dashboard is not a “lock-in” system, but designed to be easily and cheaply re-engineered to integrate with various other communications systems, see diagram below. The only thing that the dashboard requires is a connection to the Internet. 
 

 
GP surgeries at saturation point

A 2016 study published in The Lancet suggests that between 2007 and 2014 the workload in NHS general practice in England had increased by 16%, and that it is now reaching saturation point. According to Professor Richard Hobbs of Oxford University and lead author of the study, "For many years, doctors and nurses have reported increasing workloads, but for the first time, we are able to provide objective data that this is indeed the case . . . . . As currently delivered, the system [general practice in England] seems to be approaching saturation point . . . . . Current trends in population growth, low levels of recruitment and the demands of an ageing population with more complex needs will mean consultation rates will continue to rise.”
 
More than 1m patients visit GPs every day

A 2014 Deloitte’s report commissioned by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) suggests that the GP crisis in England is the result of chronic under-funding and under-investment when the demand for GP services is increasing as the population is ageing, and there is a higher prevalence of long-term conditions and multi-morbidities.
 
Each day in England, more than 1m patients visit their GPs. Some GPs routinely see between 40 to 60 patients daily. Over the past 5 years, the number of GP consultations has increased by 60m each year, and now stands at about 370m a year. Over the same period, the number of GPs has grown by only 4.1%.
 
Stress levels among GPs are high and increasing

Deloitte’s findings are confirmed by of a 2016 comparative study undertaken by the prestigious Washington DC-based Commonwealth Fund, which concluded that increasing workloads, bureaucracy and the shortest time with patients has led to 59% of NHS GPs finding their work either “extremely” or “very” stressful: significantly higher stress levels than in any other western nation. GP stress levels are likely to increase.
 
In a speech made in June 2015, the UK’s Secretary of Health said, “Within 5 years we will be looking after a million more over-70s. The number of people with three or more long term conditions is set to increase by 50% to nearly three million by 2018. By 2020, nearly 100,000 more people will need to be cared for at home.” Dr. Maureen Baker, the former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has warned that, “Rising patient demand, excessive bureaucracy, fewer resources, and a chronic shortage of GPs are resulting in worn-out doctors, some of whom are so fatigued that they can no longer guarantee to provide safe care to patients.” And Dr  Helen Stokes-Lampard, the new head of the RCGP, warns that patients are being put at risk because they often have to wait for a month before they can see a GP.

 
Newly trained GPs are seeking employment abroad

Trainee GPs are dwindling and young GPs are moving abroad. According to data from the General Medical Council (GMC), between 2008 and 2014 an average of 2,852 certificates were issued annually to enable British doctors to work abroad. We now have a dangerous situation where there are hundreds of vacancies for GP trainees. Meanwhile, findings from a 2015 British Medical Association (BMA) poll of 15,560 GPs, found that 34% of respondents plan to retire in the next five years because of high stress levels, unmanageable workloads, and too little time with patients.
 
5,000 more GPs by 2020

In 2016 the government announced a rescue package that will see an extra £2.4bn a year ploughed into primary care services by 2020. This is expected to pay for 5,000 more GPs and extra staff to boost practices. When the Secretary of Health trailed this in 2015, doctors’ leaders did not view it as a viable solution. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA’s GP committee, warned that, “delivering 5,000 extra GPs in five years, when training a GP takes 10 years, was a practical impossibility and would never be achieved.” In 2016, Pulse, a publication for GPs, suggested that the Health Secretary understands that he cannot deliver on his election promise of 5,000 new doctors by 2020, and is negotiating with Apollo Hospitals, an Indian hospital chain, to bring 400 Indian GPs to England.
 
Pharmacists in GP surgeries
 
In July 2015 the NHS launched a £15m pilot scheme, supported by the RCGP and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), to fund, recruit and employ clinical pharmacists in GP surgeries to provide patients with additional support for managing medications and better access to health checks.
 
Dr Maureen Baker said, “GPs are struggling to cope with unprecedented workloads and patients in some parts of the country are having to wait weeks for a GP appointment yet we have a ‘hidden army’ of highly trained pharmacists who could provide a solution”. Ash Soni, former president of the RPS suggested that it makes sense for pharmacists to help relieve the pressure on GPs, and said, “Around 18m GP consultations every year are for minor ailments. Research has shown that minor aliment services provided by pharmacists can provide the same treatment results for patients, but at lower cost than at a GP surgery.”
 
Progressive and helpful move
 
The efficacy for an enhanced role for pharmacists in primary care has already been established in the US, where retail giants such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid provide convenient walk-in clinics staffed by pharmacists and nurse practitioners. Over time, Americans have grown to trust and value their relations with pharmacists, which has significantly increased adherence to medications, and provided GPs more time to devote to more complex cases. Non-adherence is costly, and can lead to increased visits to A&E, unnecessary complications, and sometimes death. According to a New England Healthcare Institute report, Thinking Beyond the Pillbox, failure to take medication correctly, costs the US healthcare system $300bn annually, and results in 125,000 deaths every year. 
 
Takeaway

People with complex conditions deserve to be seen by a GP who is not stressed and who can devote the time and attention they need. “Videos could play a similar role to practice-based pharmacists. Both deal with simple day-to-day patient questions, and relieve pressure on GPs, which allows them to focus their skills where they are most needed,” says Rankin.
 
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