Will Innovation Be Put on Hold as the Healthcare Sector Recuperates Pandemic Losses?

March 2022

There’s no denying that healthcare leaders of tomorrow will use the events of the COVID-19 pandemic as a marker for future innovation.

The pandemic was, in many respects, an incredible feat of rapid response, with doctors, medical professionals, scientists and more uniting to beat a new deadly virus – but the events of the last two years have placed incomparable strains on the global healthcare system.

Despite reported failings across the board, the overall response to the pandemic was incredible. As a sector, healthcare demonstrated impeccable resilience considering the unique situation it found itself in – tackling the everyday challenges of treating patients, while simultaneously weathering the storm associated with tackling a virus with, initially, no known treatments, together with supply chain issues, staff shortages, and financial difficulties.

Perhaps more impressive, while negotiating all of this, the healthcare sector was also continuing to innovate successfully.

What the experts have said

According to the IMF: “While the rapid and unprecedented collapse of production, trade, and employment may be reversed as the pandemic eases, historical data suggest that long-term economic consequences could persist for a generation or more”

Potentially, the healthcare sector could suffer as much, if not more, than other areas of the economy due to the intensity of its focus on tackling successive waves of COVID-19 while also struggling with the other challenges outlined above.

A report by McKinsey & Company titled Industry innovation: How has COVID-19 changed global healthcare? mentions how “cost pressures on healthcare systems will likely increase in the coming years due to growing health demands and macroeconomic challenges and this will require thoughtful prioritization and balancing of initiatives across the short and longer term.”

That got us thinking. With the inherent financial difficulties faced by the National Health Service, once the pandemic has been successfully negotiated, will future innovations be placed on hold while recuperation of losses is made?

Here, we delve into what we can expect of a sector which prides itself on continually innovating in a world beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

An already stretched NHS

On 18th February, Martha Gill wrote in the Evening Standard: “…these crises are expensive, too. Staff gaps are plugged by costly locum doctors. Mistakes made by exhausted staff can result in patients suing the hospital. Patching up the ward’s infrastructure after it breaks costs more than sorting it out in time. In short, giving the NHS just enough to keep it running above the waterline is a false economy – and only keeps it lurching from crisis to crisis.”

Ms Gill’s comments follow those of Chris Hopson, NHS Providers Chief Executive, who recently issued a ‘stark warning’ that the NHS’ waiting list ‒ already 5.3 million in May 2021 ‒ is very likely to continue to grow after the pandemic has settled as patients come forward for treatment who had held back during the crisis.

Hopson said: “Nobody in the NHS would want a waiting list of this size, but what’s happened is we’ve had two problems. Firstly, insufficient capacity in the NHS after a decade of the longest and deepest squeeze financial squeeze in NHS history…and then this huge disruption over the COVID period.”

What lies ahead is incredible uncertainty, particularly with the Government failing to back a plan to tackle NHS staff shortages. Combine difficulties associated with sourcing overseas workers thanks to Brexit and what the healthcare sector is left with, despite relatively high numbers of people entering training, is a number of years of continuing to weather this rather choppy storm with many staff already exhausted after two years treating COVID patients.

Something has to give

2021 was a fantastic year for innovation in healthcare. The COVID-19 vaccine was developed, if you didn’t already know, 3D heart scans and the revolutionary technology that facilitates them was rolled out across the NHS, while miniature capture cameras were brought into usage to help identify early signs of cancer. These are just a minute sample of what was brought to the table.

Although more than £13 billion of NHS debt was written off back in 2020 by then Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has promised an additional £12 billion to the NHS each year through a 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance, is it going to be enough? Enough to fill staff vacancies, repair buildings and, above all, treat the millions of people on waiting lists?

It looks as if something else will be forced to suffer for the NHS to catch up with the backlog left by COVID and if it isn’t, once again, the staff, then it’s likely that the inspiring innovation within the system will take a hit.

That said, journalist Ross Clark has put together a ‘blue-print’ of how he believes the necessary £12 billion can be raised without hiking taxes, successfully alleviating stress on the NHS.

In his plan, Clark highlights that patients spend significantly longer in UK hospitals compared to our European neighbours, while a hyper-dependency on agency staff, erratic spending on medical supplies, and unproductive use of the NHS estate, all contribute to the rather daunting bill.

Medical equipment supply was one area which received particular attention during the pandemic – sourcing PPE from what has been more commonly referred to as “VIP lane” suppliers (a decision which has now been ruled as illegal) resulted in over the odds pricing while poor stock control saw thousands of masks and respirators wasted.

Innovation offers potential solutions to some of these problems, whether in the form of new, less invasive treatments that require shorter hospital stays, more precise testing that detects disease at an earlier stage when treatment is simpler and less expensive or in less glamorous ways such as more efficient stocktaking, reordering and aggregated purchasing. All these very different innovations can, after initial outlay, save money and improve efficiency, both of which are key goals for the NHS at present. However, whether such innovations are implemented or put on the back burner depends on whether decision makers choose to ‘spend to save’ or to rely on traditional methods.

There are certainly a number of areas of the NHS which require attention and, despite what may feel like the end of the pandemic for many of us on a day-to-day level, the healthcare sector will feel the effects for years to come. The areas of the sector which will be hit hardest by the inevitable financial pinching are yet to be seen but, there are definite improvements to be made.

When discussing ‘healthcare innovation’, the World Health Organization explains that “health innovation improves efficiency, effectiveness, quality, sustainability, safety, and affordability.”

Healthcare is continually changing and adapting – and so, innovation can be hard to quantify but, if we can recognise some form of tangible benefits being felt by the patients and, similarly, the field as a whole, then the NHS is certainly moving in the right direction.

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