A wave of future healthcare demand driven by an ageing population has been looming over the UK for years. The pandemic has brought that future into the present, focusing many minds on the need for more investment, smarter methods and better technologies to care for our sick and infirm.
Like many other Western nations, the UK’s population has been getting steadily older for years. This is expected to accelerate over the next decade due to the greater life expectancy of the large cohort of Baby Boomers coupled with a drop in the number of children families are having these days.
People living longer lives is a wonderful achievement of our health systems and the societies that created them. But governments especially have been resting on their laurels when it comes to addressing the extra demands that a large bloc of older citizens creates. The need for reform of pensions, social care and healthcare has been bleedingly obvious for years, yet these crucial issues are always shelved because they are too difficult and politically charged.
For several years now, we have been particularly interested in medical technologies that can address the looming wave of care needs that is poised to crash on developed nations in the coming decades. We believe that better systems, earlier diagnosis and more effective disease management are the only sustainable ways to keep people healthy without clogging up hospitals and clinics.
Take the UK as an example we’re all familiar with: in the past, the clarion call for the NHS in times of stress has been hiring more nurses, hiring more doctors. This cannot be the solution for the coming decades, otherwise our whole economy will revolve around nursing our sick and elderly… I exaggerate slightly, but you get the point. Piling on more nurses and doctors quickly makes the cost of healthcare astronomic and it’s borne by an ever-shrinking cohort of workers (through higher taxation and health insurance premiums).
Technology has to be the solution. Many healthcare systems – the UK’s NHS included – are stuck in the 20 th century with hard-copy letters, localised paper files and other bizarrely old- fashioned practices. What can you say, when it comes to healthcare, caution and conservativism tend to take precedence, for obvious reasons. Yet, for all the shortcomings it revealed, the pandemic has pushed that hyper-conservativism into the background. Many governments and health services have started embracing digital solutions, with promising results. This is a welcome change and just one step on what we think is a very long trek towards making healthcare more efficient, less labour intensive and – crucially for governments – cheaper.
We believe there are plenty of fantastic products and services out there that have shown their value in corporate and private life: client relationship management systems can digitise patient records. Then you can automate and streamline making appointments and instantly alert people when slots open up because of cancellations. The number of hours lost by GPs and nurses could be slashed by digitising records and patient management alone.
Meanwhile, diagnosis technologies that can spot disease earlier means patients can be treated before things get more serious. Not only is this better for all of us, it’s usually cheaper and quicker to deal with health problems before they become advanced. The rapid improvement in automation and robotics should allow more tasks to be done by more efficient machines at less cost. That would free up staff to focus on the parts of their job that they can excel at.
Rather than spend two-thirds of a GP appointment watching a doctor peck at a keyboard with two fingers, for instance, a digitised dictation program could allow them to halve appointment times and still offer you twice the attention.
Opportunities are not just in the health system itself. The pandemic has shown us all how important it is to be generally healthy. That means eating right, exercising regularly and looking after your mental health. In short, encouraging people to do the things that keep them away from hospitals in the first place saves huge sums in future healthcare bills. We think this will be a huge angle of government advocacy in the coming years. For years, we have been investing in companies providing solutions to these structural problems, and we continue to search for new ideas that could help us all stay healthy without bankrupting our societies. Many of these technologies are already there, they just need two things: investment and support from governments. We can supply one and we think the other is happening as we speak.
David Coombs, Head of Multi-Asset Investments, Rathbones
David is a panellist at The Scotsman’s free Annual Investment Conference on Tuesday 30th March in association with Martin Currie and Rathbones. Register here.