What Now For Wireless Health in the NHS?

12th May 2010 Peter Kruger

The UK now has a new government and a new Health Secretary. Not a big surprise that Andrew Lansley, who was shadow health secretary and very vocal on all things NHS related, is now in charge of health. He was also responsible for helping draw up the Conservative Party’s policy on healthcare. Mr Lansley, who is in his fifties, was once private secretary to Norman Tebbit (a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government and a man regarded, during his time in office, as being a tad right wing). Over the years Mr Lansley has moved steadily to the left. While in his thirties he suffered a stroke – this should make no difference to his attitude to healthcare policy but as you know, from listening to all those presentations from founders of ehealth companies who developed their first wireless cardio monitor after their mother or father dropped dead from a heart attack, it does. There is nothing like a glimpse of the grim reaper in the bathroom mirror to focus your mind on healthcare technology.

The Conservatives are not overseeing the healthcare industry on their own but are part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Viewers in Germany might be tempted to think that the UK now has an identical government to the one that rules from Berlin. That is not true. German Liberals and British Liberals are two different animals. A German Liberal wouldn’t give you their last Rolo, whereas British Liberals think you shouldn’t be eating Rolos anyway: because they are made by Nestlé. The German coalition is between two right wing parties. The British coalition has been described as vegetarians with jobs at MacDonalds. In Germany, Philipp Rösler, the Liberal health minister is on the far right of the CDU/Liberal (Black/Yellow) coalition, whose wings were clipped last weekend when the SPD/Green (Red/Green) coalition won a major state election.

In theory Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health secretary, should be on the far right of the UK Liberal/Conservative alliance. However looking at the healthcare sections of the two party manifestos it is hard to find any major differences between the two coalition members. Both want a lean, slimmed down, patient centric NHS and a reduction in bureaucracy. Both promise there will be no cuts in front line services. In the past Mr Lansley has talked about Google Health and Microsoft Healthvault as possible alternatives to Connecting for Health, but has since gone quiet on the subject. The Liberals merely say people should be given access to their health records as a means of encouraging them to take more interest in their health. Mr Lansley has also pointed to the German health card as the way ahead in healthcare automation. He stopped doing this when the German program crashed and burned then rose from the ashes with just four functions remaining (one of which was opening your front door if you’ve locked your keys in the house)

One possible difference between the two UK parties may be the attitude to the pharmaceutical industry. Like Mr Rösler, Mr Lansley wants to do away with the agency that decides which medications and devices should be made available to patients. This may see market forces drive down the cost of treatment. On the other hand it could see the overall cost of running the NHS rise as patients are given access to a wider range of medications and healthcare equipment. Good for wireless health vendors if approval for the use of devices within the NHS is made simpler, but bad if the cost of medications rises and the NHS has to cut back on IT - IT is not exactly flavour of the month within the NHS.

It is likely that Connecting for Health will now be unplugged and if Mr Lansley decides to do this we will see a return to the wireless healthcare market that existed a decade ago. Then decisions on new technology were made at a local level, favouring the small IT vendor. This should accelerate innovation and, as long as the standards defined within Connecting for Health are adhered to, eventually see some workable NHS wide wireless and mobile systems. However it was not deployment of new technology that improved the performance of the NHS during the Labour years, but people and money pumped into the organisation in ever increasing amounts. Technology was not responsible for the virtual elimination of patient waiting lists – this was achieved by recruiting more staff and getting patient throughput moved up from sixth to first place on the health provider’s list of priorities. If we see staff numbers reduced without a corresponding drive to increase efficiency then the old problems, such as lengthening waiting lists, will re-emerge.

Mr Lansley has strong connections with the private health sector and this could be where the action on mobile health in the UK now moves. He is unlikely to start talking about Google and Microsoft again, especially as this would cause unnecessary angst amongst his Liberal partners – whose position on data security, personal privacy and monopolistic multinational companies is similar to that adopted by their German namesake. There will, however, be a bit more talk about mobile health as this has already proved to be a simple way to increase the efficiency of domiciliary healthcare workers. Also, as the Liberal Party seems so keen on them, personal health records should become a hot topic during then next twelve months – the smaller, the more local, and friendlier the vendor the better.