Covid-19 Has Shown Us How To Transform Healthcare, Now UK Government Must Act – IPPR

New ‘mission-based approach’ to adopting new tech, digital and medical advances would support the nation’s health and wealth

The UK government should look to capture the spirit of NHS innovation that has emerged during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, argues a new report by the IPPR think tank. Previously the NHS has had a reputation for slow and inconsistent uptake of innovation – causing avoidable variation in care quality and outcomes. However, the outbreak accelerated the successful adoption and spread of new technologies, digital tools and care processes in just weeks.

The report, The Innovation Lottery, highlights the case of digital consultations in primary care. While in March to April 2019, 71 per cent of GP consultations in England were face to face; the most recent Royal College of GPs data shows that 71 per cent were held remotely at the same point this year.

The authors argue that Covid-19 has created the conditions for a ‘mission based approach’ to the spread of innovation in the NHS in England. It has done this by establishing a clear common purpose; forcing national leaders to put forward clear frameworks, guidance and funding; and pushing government to empower local practitioners. It is a sharp change from the risk-averse, bureaucratic and tick-boxing environment the researchers identified before the crisis began. It is crucial we do not allow that orthodoxy to return after the Covid-19 outbreak ends, according to IPPR.

Good for health, good for wealth

While the first phase of Covid-19 did not overrun the healthcare system as feared, the pandemic led to a startling number of other health impacts:

  • A drop in urgent cancer referrals to 25 per cent of normal levels (across the UK)
  • Half the normal number of A&E attendees for heart attack symptoms (England)
  • A 52 per cent increase in excess deaths attributed to dementia (England and Wales)

This is likely to increase demand and undercut performance in the health and care sector for years to come, according to researchers.

Spreading innovations more effectively within the healthcare system could help address the long-term impacts of the virus. In the working age population alone, it could help avoid 20,000 deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke or dementia.

IPPR says that spread of innovation will also boost our economic recovery. Modelling by IPPR and CF – a healthcare management consultancy and analytics company – shows this could generate £18 billion per year for the UK economy. This would come from more people being able to remain in work longer (£8.3 billion), and from a stronger life science industry (£9.6 billion). Meeting international standards for the spread of innovation could also save the UK’s healthcare services an estimated £10 billion per year.

Cementing the Gains

While many factors influence the improvement of healthcare, the report argues that the UK government can begin to make these gains in England by maintaining the levels of innovation catalysed during Covid-19. Critical will be adoption of a ‘mission based approach’ by the UK government. This would see them set overall objectives for health innovation; set out clear guidance and funding; and then empower healthcare workers in England by providing:

  1. Time – Staff are currently asked to deal with innovation beyond their normal working hours. The government should fund bespoke clinical time for staff to focus on spreading innovation.
  1. Relationships – Introducing infrastructure for a more highly networked NHS in England would help support the spread of better practice.
  1. Reward – There is no reward for staff driving genuine transformation in the healthcare service. An ‘innovation award’ should be introduced for those who make the most measurable progress.
  1. Funding – While money is available for research and development, there is no funding available for spread and implementation. A four-year £10 billion transformation fund should be introduced in NHS England to spread existing innovative practice and bring the healthcare service into the 21st century.

IPPR argues that, taken together, this new approach has the potential to significantly boost the health service and its workforce at a time when it is dearly needed.

Chris Thomas, IPPR Research Fellow and lead author of the report, said:

“Covid-19 has been a catastrophe – for our collective health, wealth and society. And while the NHS in England was not overrun, we paid a dear price for that in the form of cancelled treatments, delayed cancer diagnoses and avoidable excess mortality. The UK government must urgently get us back on track.

“Making sure everyone can get the best care, regardless of their postcode, will require a new approach. The old ways of box ticking, cost control and efficiency savings must end. In its place, a new approach must champion transformation, and actively empower healthcare workers to deliver that change.

“Our research shows that transforming the NHS’ offer across England will be key. It would provide huge economic gains. It would provide cost savings for the health service. Most importantly, it would provide better care for patients and service users, at a time of record need and demand.”