Look beyond the huge technological shifts that are revolutionising how the NHS operates, and there are a multitude of less heralded breakthroughs and gadgets that could ease the workload on staff, and help prevent illnesses.
Some are already being used in the health service, while others are in clinical trials, or are hopeful ideas waiting to break out of research labs.
The speed of advancement in computing, genetics and other fields, coupled with the powerful insights that come from huge medical datasets, mean that progress is happening faster than ever. The challenge for the NHS is to keep up.
Smartphones have the power to transform our wellbeing by making healthcare personal. Apps to help people quit smoking, drink less alcohol, eat better, and exercise more all stand to improve the nation’s physical health.
Apps have also arrived on the market to boost mental health. The Ginger.io app pairs subscribers to personal coaches who will draw up a consultation plan and provide daily emotional support. Other apps help people deal with panic attacks, the feelings that lead to self-harm, and with stress and anxiety. There is even an app, Brush DJ, that plays music for two minutes to ensure people clean their teeth for the right amount of time.
At Alder Hey children’s hospital near Liverpool, staff are developing an app that draws on IBM’s question-answering computer system, Watson, to help put patients at ease before they arrive for their appointment. The app allows children to build an avatar that can answer questions on the procedure, who they will see and what happens afterwards.
It also gives directions to the right department, overcoming one of the main causes of stress patients face on the day. With so many apps around, one of the biggest problems people may face is finding the right ones. To help out, the NHS has set up an online library of apps.
In the era of smart everything, even pills have been given a technological makeover. Last year, the first smart pill was approved by US regulators. On contact with stomach fluids, a tiny sensor sends a message to a wearable patch that relays the information to the patient’s smartphone. This could help patients keep track of their medication and avoid overdoses.
Work is under way on other gadget-filled pills that monitor vital signs such as heart and breathing rates as they pass through the body. Similar technology is miniaturising cameras so they can be swallowed and tracked through the digestive tract to look for disease and other abnormalities.
About 60,000 babies – one in nine – are born prematurely in NHS hospitals each year. The limit of viability for premature babies has been pushed back steadily during the past two decades to about 23 weeks.
Babies born this early weigh about 1lb (0.45kg); their eyelids are sealed shut and their skin is so thin that their blood shows through. These babies can survive, but a high proportion will experience serious and long-lasting medical problems.
The abrupt transition could be bridged using an artificial womb. The potential of the technology was demonstrated in a pre-clinical study last year in which lambs born at the equivalent of 23 weeks were successfully incubated in a “biobag” for four weeks.
Linked to the womb-like vessel by their umbilical cord, they received nutrition and oxygen and transformed from bald foetuses into fleecy newborns who performed normally on a variety of health tests. The doctors who developed the technology believe it could be ready for human clinical trials in the next five years.
When human embryonic stem cells were first cultured in 1998, the prospect was raised of limitless supplies of lab-grown cells that could ultimately be used to grow spare organs and body parts. Turning this into a reality has been a long, difficult and at times controversial path. But recent advances show the field of regenerative medicine is now poised to make an impact.
The NHS already offers stem cell therapies for certain conditions, such as torn tendons, and for disorders such as leukaemia and lymphoma through bone marrow transplants. But work is ongoing to see whether stem cells can regenerate cartilage, restore sight to blind people, and even treat neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
For one ambitious project, doctors at University College London, Great Ormond Street hospital and the Royal Free hospital have grown replacement food pipes for babies who are born with part of the organ missing. The tissue is made from stem cells taken from amniotic fluid and grown on a “scaffold” that moulds the cells to the right shape. When transplanted, the lab-grown tissue should allow affected babies to swallow naturally as they grow.