Preventing future pandemics requires UK healthcare system innovation

UK healthcare
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Leading healthcare boss Graham Ewart, CEO of Direct Healthcare Group (DHG), outlines the challenges faced by the UK’s healthcare system, and how improvements to this sector are needed for it to become world-leading once again.

Despite innovations in digital care, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated an urgent need for change across the UK healthcare system. While the NHS endeavours to recover from the impact of COVID-19, it is crucial that the lessons learned over the past two years inform the way in which the UK healthcare system operates in the future.

CEO of Direct Healthcare Group (DHG), Graham Ewart, is an advocate for the advancement of the UK healthcare sector, believing innovation could play a vital role in future-proofing NHS services and ensuring that these services are accessible to all. Here, he tells Health Europa that innovation needs to be embraced within healthcare in order for the system to develop and evolve.

What steps could have been taken in the early stages of the pandemic to better prepare healthcare systems?

COVID-19 presented unprecedented challenges for the UK healthcare sector and the past 18 months have exposed its weaknesses. The pandemic has shown us just how important it is to improve the systems we have now. There is a vital need for change across both health and social care. We need to ensure that the system can meet the demands of the growing ageing population and also, that everyone in the UK has access to high-quality care wherever they live, without being subject to a postcode lottery of services.

The historic underfunding has led to a price sensitive market. Not only has this enabled a market driven by cost over quality, but it has compromised innovation and the resulting clinical outcomes and levels of patient care. As a country which prides itself on being at the forefront of healthcare, we are falling behind our global neighbours in terms of driving the sector forward and providing the highest quality care which patients deserve. Funding, and the subsequent innovation it allows, is key for the future of the health and social care sector. I hope the focus that the sector has received over the last year will lead to a much-needed reappraisal to truly provide the very best care for those in need.

What could be done at policy and procurement levels to ensure essential medical equipment is readily available, particularly in the event of future infection surges? How can the government work effectively with businesses to mitigate resource issues in the future?

We all know about the difficulties in procurement of medical equipment during the pandemic, but this issue runs deeper than the immediate crisis. There are hundreds of examples of financial wastage across the sector on an almost daily basis, from contractors ingrained into the system, to products bought time and time again despite there being proven solutions that provide better outcomes and value creation. The process of ensuring that quality products are readily available in the UK healthcare sector is one that urgently needs reviewing.

The Prime Minister recently announced a manifesto-breaking tax rise which will result in £12bn worth of extra funding per year to tackle the NHS backlog and plug the gaps in health and social care. In my opinion, however, the fiscal responsibility of the healthcare system needs reviewing before we can even begin to look at plugging holes. Contractual obligations, often signed years if not decades ago, have tied facilities into long-term contracts with little flexibility or power to negotiate better terms, and in the face of rising material cost inflation.

This inability to procure efficiently has meant that even where competitor suppliers have released alternatives which offer greater innovation and a resulting higher level of care (or sometimes cheaper alternatives), the providers are stuck in a never-ending circle of wastage. This also means that when an urgent crisis does occur, rather than having a database of varied suppliers who can step in, the sector either targets new, unproven providers, or leans on existing providers – both of whom may not have the correct product or inflate the cost due to the immediacy. Put simply, the current procurement set up is wrongly enabling the service to continue to pay for products that do not enable patients, or the system, to realise the most benefit.

Looking ahead, where would you like to see government funding focused to aid pandemic recovery and also strengthen resilience to future pandemics that may arise?

Delivering genuine innovation that makes a real difference to both patients and the lives of our hardworking healthcare professionals should be at the very heart of everything we do as a sector, not only to improve the current issues, but to develop a system that is once again world-leading. It is my belief that instilling innovation, whether that be through product or through ways of working, must be viewed as a critical component to any healthcare service. It is not something that can be put to one side due to budgetary constraints or left until the last minute. We need to ensure that we have the preparedness to deal with the current needs, and ensure we are ready to face pandemics down the line.

It is only by embracing innovation as a culture that we can build on what we have, drive UK healthcare forward and future-proof ourselves against future crises. Research and development are key to the whole of the healthcare, research and scientific sector. Now really is the time to invest in our talent and showcase how British developments can work alongside international achievements to help transform the lives of those across the world. As a sector which has been thrust into the forefront of global survival, we must now all work together to embed innovation from top to bottom – to learn, develop and meet the demands of an increasingly diverse population, fulfil urgent requirements and improve clinical outcomes.

Graham Ewart
Direct Healthcare Group (DHG)

This article is from issue 19 of Health Europa Quarterly. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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