UK lagging behind on adoption of connected healthcare technology

We speak to David McKinney, managing director of Tunstall Healthcare Group, about why more-widespread adoption of connected 'telecare' devices is vital to solving current health and care crisis

Widespread adoption of connected healthcare technology will help to support people to live independently in their own homes for longer

The UK is lagging behind other countries in using connected healthcare technology to solve the current bed blocking and health and social care crises.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, they have integrated health and social care budget. This has started in England, but it needs to be accelerated

This is the view of David McKinney, managing director of connected health firm, Tunstall Healthcare Group.

Speaking to BBH he explained: “We think the NHS and social care should be more connected.

“If you take a holistic view you can easily see that people who suffer from social problems, like isolation for example, can end up needing health services if this is not addressed.

“In Scotland and Northern Ireland, they have integrated health and social care budget. This has started in England, but it needs to be accelerated.”

As a result there is a hospital system that is failing to keep up with demand amid a reduction in both NHS and social care budgets.

It is not about technology replacing face-to-face contact, but to support and augment current services

Bed blocking, for example, is a huge problem, with around 7,000 delayed discharges last year. This marked a 30% increase on the previous 12 months.

“A lot of people end up in hospital because of avoidable circumstances, such as a fall or the escalation of an existing illness,” said McKinney.

“This has a huge, and often-continuous impact on a system which is already under extreme pressure.”

One of the answers is the more-widespread adoption of connected healthcare systems – sensors and monitors that are placed in someone’s home and can alert carers to any potential problem.

These range from traditional pull cords through which a person can summon help; to gas, water and other environmental monitors, as well as measuring a person’s vital signs.

There are also monitors that can detect when someone has a fall or has left the room or building.

If we can keep people at home for as long, and as healthily, as possible, it is better for the system and better for the individual

And a new generation of so-called wearables – smart watches and pendants – can monitor things like heart rate and blood pressure.

Collectively known as assistive/supported technology, or telecare; these monitors aim to help people to live independently in their own homes for longer, something vital as the population continues to age and social care places are limited.

“It’s about monitoring behaviour,” said McKinney.

David McKinney

“If you install a sensor that tells you about a person’s daily behaviour, for example when a person makes a cup of tea, you can learn their routine and then see when there is a change which could indicate a complication.

“In this way we can try and prevent a problem escalating and send a rapid response when there is something wrong.

“For example, some research has shown that before a fall a person’s gait can change.

Sensors can monitor and alert carers to any changes so that a fall can be prevented.

“It is not about technology replacing face-to-face contact, but to support and augment current services.”

We take funding out of social care and then we decrease health services and we are surprised when there’s a problem. It’s about the continuum

“People don’t have to have carers visiting just to check in because they are constantly getting feedback from monitors on a real-time basis.

“If we can keep people at home for as long, and as healthily, as possible, it is better for the system and better for the individual.”

BT has promised to switch to an IP network by 2025 and will no longer lie copper cabling after 2020. This is expected to further increase the use of connected healthcare systems.

“Tunstall launches its first IP platform later this year, but we will continue to support digital and analogue during the crossover,” said McKinney.

“In the analogue world, you are restricted to basic sensor systems, but as we transfer over to IP, technology can be expected to help more and more.”

There are countries that are more progressive in the adoption of connected healthcare including Spain, Nordics and Australia.

“The UK is lower than it needs to be, and is underutilising connected healthcare technology,” said McKinney.

“When I have spoken to GPs and other health and care staff there is, surprisingly, a total lack of awareness of what exists.

If we keep putting the money in the places we always have done, we won’t be able to keep up with demand

“It’s almost as if the first stop when anyone needs support is to send round a carer or move them to a care home. That’s wrong as so much can be done in people’s homes.”

Also critical to the adoption of connected healthcare is funding, and currently health and social care financing is largely separate, and is under pressure all the time.

McKinney said: “Historically we have put money into the acute side of care – more beds, more nurses. I’m not suggesting this should not still happen, but we need to focus more on prevention.

“We take funding out of social care and then we decrease health services and we are surprised when there’s a problem. It’s about the continuum.

“I think the model needs to change because what is not going to change is our ageing population. That is just going to increase.

“If we keep putting the money in the places we always have done, we won’t be able to keep up with demand.”

Instead, he said, we need to see a concerted drive to understand and adopt connected healthcare systems.

And manufacturers are continuously improving technology to make it more user-friendly and more likely to be used to full effect.

McKinney said: “I think with the advent of IP we will move towards a system where there are a set of services to support people in their homes.

“It is going to be more common to have GP consultations over video link and I think we will see more wearables.

“Manufacturers will instead be looking to make things more aesthetically pleasing and there will be a lot more watches, broches and bracelets.

A lot of technology in the future will enable services to be pushed back to the point of care, which in many cases will be the person’s home

“Sensors and wearables will also take on a bigger role in monitoring of vital signs and alerting healthcare practitioners before a person’s condition deteriorates.

“A lot of technology in the future will enable services to be pushed back to the point of care, which in many cases will be the person’s home.

“The delivery of connected healthcare represents a huge opportunity for new models of care and service delivery.”

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