Comment: Age is Just a Number: How 5G can enable the NHS’s preventative strategy

Danny Longbottom of BT explains why the NHS needs to change tactics to meet the Government’s aim of focusing on prevention rather than treatment

Danny Longbottom, director of local government and health at BT, explains that to build an effective strategy that focuses on pre-treatment, a new approach is need across the NHS – one in which patient data can be collected and analysed to provide insight into which risk factors should be tackled

The introduction of 5G is set to be a game changer for health and wellbeing services

We’re all getting older.

Well, maybe that’s a little obvious!

What I should say is that we’re all living longer. And, thanks to a variety of factors, from technology advances to improved medical treatment, human life expectancy is at an all-time high.

In the UK we can now expect to live for almost 81 years – significantly higher than just 30 years ago when life expectancy was around 75 years old.

This change is being mirrored in the wider world, with the global average life span hitting 72 years old, an increase of 5.5 years since 2000.

Heading off disease and illness at the source, rather than treating the symptoms, will be essential in moderating demand on the NHS

Of course, increased life expectancy has one natural conclusion: an ageing population.

For the UK, the latest projections show that within 50 years there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over – a population roughly the size of London.

And this change brings a new kind of healthcare challenge. Namely, how can we ensure quality of life within the ageing population?

The fact of the matter is that older populations are more likely to require NHS treatment – something which could put an even-greater strain on the UK’s healthcare facilities.

A 65-year-old costs the NHS 2.5 times more than the average 30-year-old. An 85-year-old costs more than five times as much.

Recognising the challenge, the NHS has already taken steps to ensure that the future of healthcare is fit for purpose: identifying the delivery of preventative treatment solutions as a priority.

Aiming to help people stay healthy, the NHS’s new strategy will tackle everything from environmental factors and lifestyle choices to the monitoring and management of genetic predispositions.

Heading off disease and illness at the source, rather than treating the symptoms, will be essential in moderating demand on the NHS.

Early tactics include investment in programmes to cut smoking, reduce obesity, lower air pollution, and limit alcohol-related A&E admissions.

While these initial schemes have started to deliver positive results, building the most-effective pre-treatment strategy possible will rely on one important tool: data.

And a new approach is needed: one in which patient data can be collected and analysed to provide insight into which risk factors should be tackled.

The monitoring of patients, and general citizens, through the next generation of medical wearables in the community will quickly become the norm, allowing careful monitoring and analysis of their results in order to help clinicians diagnose potential danger signs

This means that the monitoring of patients, and general citizens, through the next generation of medical wearables in the community will quickly become the norm, allowing careful monitoring and analysis of their results in order to help clinicians diagnose potential danger signs during, or even before, medical incidents.

Similarly, the population’s data can then be pseudonymised and analysed to help spot underlying patterns, giving healthcare professionals insight into the warning signs for any number of diseases and conditions.

Of course, this relies on a vast mesh and number of constantly communicating sensors, an innovation only truly viable through enormous bandwidth and robust reliability.

Connectivity has long been a concern in healthcare, and while 4G has gone some of the way to solving network capacity challenges; the introduction of 5G is set to be a game changer.

Already this type of technology is being applied in delivering preventative medicine – notably during an EE-run trial that used the 4G network to cut stroke rates in Hounslow.

Working at West Middlesex Hospital, the programme identified Hounslow as a location with one of the highest national stroke rates.

To tackle this problem the trial used a downloadable app to turn users’ smartphones into heart monitors. All the patient had to do was hold their device for 30 seconds to record an electrocardiogram (ECG) which was then analysed for signs of Atrial Fibrillation - a heart condition that causes an irregular and abnormally-fast heart rate, often leading to strokes. This allowed the results to be analysed remotely by the GP and, if necessary, with a cardiologist; accelerating diagnosis and saving the NHS time.

Technology will enable patient data to be collected and analysed to provide insight into which risk factors should be tackled

Because of the trial 3,000 people in Hounslow received ECG screening for AF, with nearly 200 undiagnosed cases being found – instances which would have more than likely gone undetected before.

Connectivity has long been a concern in healthcare, and while 4G has gone some of the way to solving network capacity challenges; the introduction of 5G is set to be a game changer

This early detection has allowed plans to be put in place to reduce stroke risks in these patients which, in turn, reduces the strain on the NHS and saves resource that might be needed in social care.

This is just one example, and while it has delivered impressive results, the success of preventative healthcare strategies rests on scale. To scale, this kind of programme needs a network with significant capacity, reliable bandwidth, and low latency.

The deployment of 4G has been momentous and has brought many benefits that are often taken for granted. 5G is only going to build on that achievement; it will prove to be essential, not only for healthcare, but to our everyday lives.

For the UK health services, the issue of the aging population is one that will only get worse – and it is good to hear that steps are already being taken to ensure it is handled with care and serious thought.

The deployment of 4G has been momentous and has brought many benefits that are often taken for granted. 5G is only going to build on that achievement; it will prove to be essential, not only for healthcare, but to our everyday lives

Technology is central to its solution, and 5G will be central to ensuring this technology can deliver the best-possible results.

With vast investment being placed into the UK medical-tech sector – at present there are nearly 3,700 companies producing a range of medical devices and diagnostic equipment – reliable connectivity and high levels of capacity will form the backbone of the sector’s success.

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