Murray Ellender is featured in CEO Monthly discussing how digital innovation is transforming our health service.
For any GP currently working in the NHS, my story is a familiar one. Exhausted after yet another busy clinic of back-to-back appointments, my colleagues and I took a moment to reflect: did the majority of our patients – and indeed ourselves – really need to be physically present in the consulting room? Or could digitally-enabled remote consultations provide a safe and effective alternative?
A chance meeting with a pioneering technology company a few days later led to exploratory conversations around how patients might be better served in our 21st century, technology-driven environment. The development of our digital consultation tool – an online platform which connects patients virtually with their own NHS GP – began to take shape.
Five years later, eConsult is the most widely used digital triage tool in the NHS. More than 4 million patients across the UK can now seek healthcare advice online at a time and place that suits them. Serious or sinister symptoms raise a red flag immediately, while more routine concerns can be dealt with remotely, saving both GPs and patients precious time. For tech-savvy patients who are used to accessing everything at the click of a button or swipe of a screen, digital access to healthcare is quickly becoming another new normal.
The health tech revolution
Technology is transforming the health sector in ways that were barely imaginable ten years ago. From apps and devices that let patients monitor their own health, to artificial intelligence-based techniques that accurately detect cancer, the UK health tech market is flourishing – with recent reports suggesting it is set to grow to £2.9 billion by the end of this year.
It hasn’t always been this way. Digital innovation has been slow to disrupt the health sector compared to other industries – and for good reasons in many cases, namely those of clinical efficacy and patient safety. But a digital health revolution is finally underway. From top to bottom, the NHS is starting to realise the power of technology to sustainably relieve the immense pressures it currently faces. With growing demand and dwindling resources, harnessing digital innovation is critical to the future of the NHS, now more than ever.
NHS pressures are no more acutely felt than in general practice, where I work. But instead of stifling innovation, the challenges of working in a system under strain have enhanced it. eConsult is one of many innovative models transforming the NHS, but doing so from within. Doctors and other healthcare professionals working on the frontline are in a unique position to understand exactly where time could be saved, efficiencies made, or patient experience improved. eConsult was developed by GPs for GPs, and maintaining that clinical connection has no doubt helped us throughout our journey.
As well as being a full-time CEO, I work one day a week at a GP surgery in South East London. The majority of our senior team are also clinicians, with frontline experience working in primary, urgent or emergency care. This gives us a fuller understanding of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of the NHS, and what it takes to launch and market a product within general practice. GPs are fairly traditional when it comes to embracing potentially disruptive technologies. Being a GP myself has helped to bridge that gap and build trust in a product that is not there to replace doctors, but to enhance the care they give.
Keeping up my clinical work as well as being a CEO is important to me. Although balancing both roles can be a challenge, I believe they complement and inform each other. Being a GP keeps me connected to frontline issues and continually reminds me why digital solutions like eConsult are so vital, while my role as CEO gives me the chance to instigate real change at a system-wide level. Surrounding myself with such a passionate, dynamic team means that I genuinely look forward to going to work each day.
Scaling-up within the NHS
The NHS is not short of innovative ideas; the real challenge is trying to scale-up and diffuse these new ways of working across the whole system. Early adoption in one hospital or GP practice does not guarantee any others will follow, which means many health tech start-ups find it difficult to gain traction on a national scale.
This is where being part of a dedicated start-up programme, such as the Digital Health London Accelerator scheme, can really help. eConsult was one of 30 small to medium-sized businesses selected as part of the 2017/18 cohort. The Accelerator programme specifically aims to speed up the adoption of innovation at scale. By connecting us with NHS stakeholders and industry investors, as well as supporting us with market access and navigation, the Accelerator helped us gain traction within the market – and is one of the reasons we are now live in 440 surgeries across the country and growing.
A digital future
The health tech sector is a dynamic and fast-moving one, which is why we’re constantly evaluating, adapting and refining our system to create the best possible experience for our patients and practices. A key part of this is evolving our platform as technology improves.
There has recently been a lot of hype around artificial intelligence (AI), and its potential to revolutionise the way patients seek healthcare advice. Will intelligent chatbots remove the need to ever see a doctor again? I believe not. Although AI holds huge potential as a tool to support and supplement clinical decision-making, the technology is not yet sophisticated enough to be considered a viable alternative to seeing a doctor.
For now, our focus is on using technology to create a more integrated and streamlined NHS. We have recently made the move into urgent care, pioneering a new integrated care system in Bexley, South East London, which lets patients start their clinical journey at home via an app or their practice website. The results so far have been promising, with the app signposting patients to the right service at the right time, helping to easing pressures on a stretched system.
This is one of the reasons why I feel so proud to be CEO of eConsult. All of us working in the digital health sector have an unparalleled opportunity to use technological innovation to create a health service that works better for everyone. With the NHS turning 70 this year, it’s exciting to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we can still go.