The NHS is 70 – Claudia Rubin asks: what’s next?

From birthday teas to big policy, blood donor drives to special 10p coins, the 70th anniversary of the creation of the NHS is getting the full-body treatment. Nowhere in the world celebrates their public services the way we do our NHS, and politicians will soon be falling over themselves to feature in photo opportunities at their local hospital or alongside smiling nurses.

While the feel-good factor ebbs through 70 years of healthcare progress, the real opportunity of this milestone is determining where and how the NHS goes from here. Fortunately, the anniversary is unleashing a wave of new surveys, studies and reports into which policy-makers can delve. The question though is what role the private sector is going to play in the 10-year plan and whether the opportunity for industry to shape this relationship is being optimised.

Recent IPSOS Mori polling for NHS Providers on public attitudes to health and care offer some helpful clues as to where the government feels the pressure. While it found public support for the NHS to be ‘unwavering’, almost half expect the NHS to get ‘worse or much worse’ over the next few years. The Prime Minister has now announced the Government’s plan for a long-term funding solution for the NHS, but given that of the six other top priorities identified by the NHS Providers poll as needing more investment, none were in the field of medicines, devices or technology, the life sciences industry could surely do more to demonstrate its central role in delivering a sustainable 10-year plan.

Technological evolution

Fortunately, although the public may not be entirely engaged with the vital role that innovative treatment and technology must play, the signs are there that the Government is. The Secretary of State has affirmed his commitment to much more use of technology in the NHS, which includes wholescale digitisation projects and harnessing artificial intelligence, particularly around prevention and diagnosis. But these are immense challenges – the expectation that all trusts in England are finally to do away with paper and switch to entirely e-referral systems by October this year is being met with significant concern, despite those of us in the private sector having long forgotten what paper actually feels like.

We know that the private sector has to be part of the plan, but we also know the inherent scepticism that profit-making companies encounter in public services.

It is with almost blinkered zealotry that the public defend the core principle of delivering the same high-quality care free to everyone, alongside a belief that the private sector ought not be seen to make profit from the NHS.

Challenging the damaging misconception that private profit and NHS benefit are mutually exclusive should be an important message for the public to hear. Numerous examples of recent efficiency gains at NHS Trusts, made as a result of a clever bit of software from which a small company has made healthy profit, illustrate this well. So too does the astonishing success of immunisation programmes and the use of innovative surgery techniques – highly profit-making initiatives central to transforming care over the past 70 years.

Where traditionally the private sector has been kept at arm’s length when it comes to strategic planning and decision-making in the health service, there is an increasing need for this to change. If the NHS wants to be in the best position to harness the potential that emerging technologies bring, the regulatory system that enables them needs to be developed in step. It is vital that policy and regulation keep up with the pace of scientific progress.


Regulate to facilitate

The disruption to the pharmaceutical market is continuing. From the potential of machine learning and AI technology to affect drug development to the rise in expectation from patients, payers and providers, not just for high quality science, but for evidence of improved health outcomes at a cost that represents value to the NHS.

Regulators and industry are coming to an understanding that the future is not necessarily about deregulation, but rather in some cases adding further regulation to facilitate innovation.

There is a sense amongst BEIS at least, that regulators must move away from resolutely setting the rules for a given market towards a more collaborative approach with industry, which is open to regulation readily adapting as the technology changes.

The UK public’s pride in the NHS manifests itself in our affection for its tireless staff. But as the recent YouGov poll for the ABPI showed, 81% say they are proud of Britain’s history of innovation in healthcare and medicine; 86% say it is important that Britain continues to be a global leader in health and science innovation; and when asked the main reason for Britain’s lead in medicine and medical technology, the most popular answer was the role of the NHS.

The NHS70 team has named Innovation and Digital as the policy focus for the month of July, and we expect some related policy announcements. In addition to the rather quaint birthday teas and ‘health heroes’ awards – policy-makers might consider being seen regularly with the likes of BenevolentAI’s Ken Mulvany or DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis, (as well as more substantive initiatives), to make it clear that the next era for the NHS will be rooted in the cutting-edge science and technology that companies like these are investing so heavily in.

Claudia Rubin is Director at Decideum. She is an experienced government affairs professional and communications strategist.