A welcome policy shift signals a brighter future for the NHS

Hilary Burton

30 July 2015

A shift in focus from targets to quality, treatment to prevention, disjointed to integrated care and fostering the potential of scientific and technological innovations to empower patients. Describing what to look forward to over the next five years of the NHS and beyond, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt’s recent speech did much to reassure me of the government’s appreciation not only for the need to place patients and quality of services at the centre of its health strategy, but also for the crucial role of scientific and technological innovation in the future of the NHS. In order to revive the NHS and propel British leadership in science and technology, the PHG Foundation supports the shift in focus and power towards a patient-driven system based on cost-effective, sustainable and wherever possible preventative models of care.

The PHG Foundation has always been a strong advocate for the potential of science and technology to drive a more efficient and effective health service. This is embodied in our 2015 Health Innovation Manifesto, which includes the need to integrate genomics and digital health technologies into mainstream medicine, to develop personalised disease prevention efforts and to enable individuals to access new innovations in digital health. It is only by placing the individual at the centre of an innovation-based health service that the NHS can hope to survive the growing threats of financial debt, an aging demographic and an increasing prevalence of long-term conditions.

So when Mr Hunt describes ‘Patient Power 2.0’ as the use of ‘technology and science to achieve a radical permanent shift in power towards patients’, it is reassuring that the government recognises the need for this vital shift. Electronic health records, a new electronic booking service and the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox to push take-up of new digital innovation further echo our long-standing advocacy of increased data sharing as a necessity in 21st century healthcare. The promise to ‘decode individual genomes to target personalised medicines, improve diagnosis and therapy, and reduce waste’ is particularly encouraging and precisely embodies the PHG Foundation’s vision for the future of UK healthcare.

Only time will tell whether these promises are truly the roots of a radical new shift in policy or merely political posturing to placate public concerns – or, even, a combination of the two. Yet there are reasons to be more optimistic. For example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed that the NHS will benefit from £8 billion more annual funding by 2020. Furthermore, the NHS Innovation Accelerator Programme, focusing on mature innovations ready to be scaled across the NHS, selected 17 Fellows whose health innovations will be fast-tracked over 12 months. Even relatively small victories like the awarding of NHS Innovation Challenge Prizes worth more than £150,000 or the NHS Test Bed programme are encouraging governmental endorsements of the potential for scientific and technological innovation to revive the NHS. 

The challenge ahead is to ensure that the momentum is maintained such that these worthy initiatives deliver real, sustained benefits for NHS patients. Indeed, Mr Hunt himself must be well aware that with the financial and logistical challenges faced by the NHS, there is an urgent need to use science and technology to reduce costs as well as improve health. The PHG Foundation will be eagerly following the progress of this new strategy calling for patient-led, innovative health care - as we have always done.