By Carl Rees, Healthcare Communications Specialist

We can all see how much pressure the NHS is under, and there is no area more challenged than emergency care – ambulance services and hospital emergency departments.

And while NHS England is working on a much-anticipated Urgent & Emergency Care Strategy in the background, the most recent performance data for these two key pillars of a clinically safe health system have been beyond worrying. They are unprecedented and they reflect a system in crisis, where patients are dying and coming to avoidable harm daily.

Frontline healthcare staff have been bearing the physical and emotional brunt of this pressure for too long, which is why so many say they have finally resorted to industrial action.

Like millions of worried patients and members of the public they are waiting for leaders within the NHS, Department of Health and Social Care and Parliament to come up with answers and provide hope that things can and will change. To map out a viable new direction for the UK health and social care system, with new plans, innovations and ideas that will transform the quality of care being delivered and provide the tools and environment to enable these changes.

The answer lies in technology

One of the fastest solutions and ‘quick wins’ that can be deployed now to help alleviate pressure on the whole system is the rapid adoption of greater use of technology. This is already happening in pockets of innovation within parts of the NHS and will no doubt grow exponentially in years to come. However, a national push and formal mandate from leaders is now needed to turbo-charge these innovations.

Technology that can enable lower waits, faster treatment and better and more consistent clinical outcomes for patients; less admin and bureaucracy for frontline staff; less people needing to be taken to hospital, allowing them to be treated at home instead; support with the elimination of hospital handover delays and a renewed focus on the improvement of patient care by a workforce re-energised by new technology that enables them to spend more time with patients giving the quality of care they signed up to provide.

Improvements in connectivity will undoubtedly be needed to achieve this, but the next phase of the Ambulance Radio Programme (ARP) rollout is imminent, which will help. And in addition there is also the highly innovative Hybrid Connex programme – a €5.7m initiative co-funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) ARTES 5G Strategic Programme Line (SPL) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to create the prototype for pioneering an always-connected and cloud-based digital ambulance of the future. 

The Hybrid Connex Digital Ambulance of the Future project is a technology initiative that is working with the NHS to provide the UK ambulance sector with a resilient connectivity solution which combines 4G, 5G and satellite connections, meaning that the crew onboard the vehicle will never be offline (5G connectivity will be the primary connection, falling back to 4G when 5G is not available and then onto satellite connectivity in deep rural locations and total ‘not-spots’). It will be piloted in two NHS ambulance trusts this year and the results are eagerly awaited.

This technology is a genuine enabler – it will provide the permanent connection that can safely enable a whole range of applications to be able to work together to significantly improve patient experiences while transforming a large part of the way ambulance services deliver ‘see and treat’ care. 

With the ability of a connected ambulance to function as a remote consultation room (or a crew member to link to a specialist within the control centre or elsewhere using portable technology) paramedics can access medical records remotely through secure connection to the Health and Social Care Network, as well as call on the support of specialist clinicians to assess patient conditions and provide treatment en-route to hospitals and medical centres, if it is deemed necessary to convey those patients. 

Quite often the technology will mean that this conveyance to hospital will not be necessary, and patients will be able to remain in their usual place of residence, which is both comforting and desirable, where clinically safe.

Initiatives like Hybrid Connex can help turbo-charge a significant growth in telehealth (or telemedicine) across the whole spectrum of NHS care, from primary care through to end of life care. And the opportunities for remote care are truly endless.

Virtual wards using remote monitoring and diagnostics (for example point of care bloods machines that enable the patient’s samples to be taken at home, with results available in two minutes), mobile ultrasound scanners, hospital-at-home schemes, new stroke pathways enabled by technology and immediate cardiac consultations are all examples of care that can be delivered away from the hospital and are now happening in pockets across the NHS, today. 

In short, we need to harness the power of connectivity, encourage the growth of technological applications and applaud and mirror the energy and optimism of this growing band of innovative clinicians who are breaking new ground and finding new ways to deliver better care for patients. 

A new narrative to show how patient experiences of the NHS can be improved

A strong narrative message from leaders across the healthcare and political spectrum could also be deployed that explains how the inappropriate use of NHS emergency services is having a direct impact on patient flow across the whole system – by creating blockages at hospital Emergency Departments with people who neither need or want to be there – and thus preventing those who need emergency hospital services most from accessing them.

This could be positively aligned to messages encouraging a new, open mindset among patients and providers that shows how new technology and new ways of working can do at least the same – if not better – a job of quickly addressing their emergency healthcare needs as the traditional model of hospital-based care, so that patients, as well as providers, gain confidence in these new pathways of care.

The rapid wider adoption of these technologies – in tandem with positive national messaging – would likely see ambulance services returning to the type of safe performance levels (in other words, response times for all categories of patient acuity) that were in place pre-pandemic. 

It would also relieve pressure in hospital Emergency Departments, more equitably distribute risk across the wider system, improve the quality of patient experiences and clinical outcomes and help re-energise a workforce that badly needs innovative new ways of working to give them hope for the future.

For more information about Hybrid Connex see Carl Rees has worked as a hands-on specialist in healthcare communications for 27 years within primary care, acute hospitals, community pharmacy and extensively within the NHS ambulance sector.