Millions of patients have been promised quicker access to health apps and hi-tech devices after the head of the NHS said that doctors could send him the bill.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said smartphones were one of the “most powerful diagnostic tools now available”, insisting that they could improve care and save money.
He plans to approve and centrally fund dozens of innovative apps and machines each year so that doctors and patients can use them without worrying about the cost. He said that the NHS had been “penny-wise but pound-foolish” by being too slow to use inventions that could prevent patients’ condition deteriorating.
One early contender is a device that can diagnose a heart condition suffered by more than two million people on a smartphone in about 30 seconds. Mr Stevens argues that AliveCor will allow GPs to diagnose atrial fibrillation with an app and finger monitor rather than sending patients for hospital tests.
About half a million people do not know they have the condition and Mr Stevens says improving diagnosis will prevent some of the 25,000 strokes linked to atrial fibrillation every year. Patients with the condition could use the apps themselves to monitor their heart rate and avoid the need to see doctors so regularly, he said.
Other apps could help patients with lung conditions avoid A&E visits by advising on medicines, while other devices could protect intensive care patients against chest infections.
“For people with diabetes, for people with heart disease, for pregnant mums and acutely ill patients there is a huge opportunity to improve quality of care and also save money in parts of the NHS by getting millions of new med-tech devices and treatments into the hands of frontline doctors and nurses,” Mr Stevens said.
Currently, patients are missing out on the best care because inventors have to “arm-wrestle” with individual hospitals and GPs to get them to pay for devices and programmes that could improve care, Mr Stevens said.
“If it saves money somewhere else in the NHS, a hospital or GP may say they can’t afford it because it’s someone else who reaps the benefit,” he said. “It’s approached as an extra cost even if it would save money for some part of the system.”
Hospitals overspent by £2.45 billion last year but Mr Stevens insists technology can help the NHS to close a funding black hole.
“Part of the way we’re going to drive frontline efficiencies is by changing the way care is delivered,” he said. “In the rest of our lives we’re seeing the difference that innovative tech makes, and now the NHS will have a streamlined way of getting ground-breaking and practical new technologies into the hands of patients and our frontline staff.”
The NHS funding system will be reformed from next April to allow hospitals and GPs to apply for reimbursement for apps and devices on the approved list. Mr Stevens expects about 20 to 30 new products to be added to the list each year.