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How technology is helping to cut through healthcare backlogs

New tech is being used in both Ireland and the UK to speed up patient testing, improve medical care and digitise health records.

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As healthcare waiting lists continue to mount, organisations are turning to new technology as a way to push back the numbers.

Recent statistics claim that roughly one in four Irish citizens – roughly 1.3m people – are on some form of healthcare waitlist.

The backlog across global healthcare has grown in recent years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Umang Patel is the chief clinical Information officer of Microsoft UK and a practicing paediatrician. He said that healthcare backlogs have “multiplied dramatically”.

“We’ve essentially lost two years’ worth of elective treatment,” Patel said in a blog post. “And waiting lists are worse than ever.”

Patel said that despite the challenges, he remains “optimistic” as technology is “much further along than we thought it would be for our sector”.

“We’ve known that we would have to face up to these challenges eventually,” Patel said. “What’s interesting, however, is that a lot of the challenges that we didn’t know how to answer have already been by necessity.

“We didn’t know if people would use their phones and various technology to interact with healthcare. But they have and it’s not been anywhere near as problematic as we thought.”

A number of health providers in Ireland have taken steps this year to embrace new technology to reduce growing backlogs and improve patient care.

Mater Private Network recently announced a €26m investment to upgrade the health records of all its hospitals and clinics in Ireland. A multidisciplinary team aims to complete the roll-out of an electronic health record system by 2024, which will integrate patient records across the entire group’s network in Ireland.

In February, Tallaght University Hospital launched an electronic patient records system to help streamline patient information and speed up its services.

xWave: Speeding up patient testing

One Irish company that is working to reduce healthcare backlogs is xWave. Headquartered at NovaUCD, this start-up has developed a clinical platform to support medical professionals when selecting tests for patients.

After medical staff input information about a patient case, this platform presents them with ‘next step’ action advice in line with the latest evidence-based guidance, such as an x-ray, MRI scan, clinic appointment or self-management plan.

Speaking to, xWave CEO Mitchell O’Gorman said health providers have typically looked at increasing capacity – such as equipment or staff – to deal with healthcare backlogs, but this can be “a slow and expensive solution”.

“There is a growing awareness of the potential for smart technologies, such as our clinical decision support (CDS) system, to reduce backlogs by ensuring that patients are getting the best test first,” O’Gorman said.

“There has been a significant move recently for health providers to adopt digital technologies in an effort to deal with worsening waiting lists.”

The purpose behind xWave’s platform is to reduce the backlog for certain medical diagnostic tools, which are vital for the early identification of various diseases.

publication review from the US Food and Drug Administration suggests that up to 50pc of high-tech imaging procedures such as CT scans may be unnecessary, as they fail to provide information that improves patient welfare.

xWave said its support system is already in use in Irish hospital and has helped reduce the average referral-to-vetting time from more than seven working days to 14 minutes.

The start-up said that a recent audit of its CDS system suggests it reduced the volume of referrals by more than 8pc across an Irish hospital group, freeing up system capacity for other patients.

“We are now looking at a pilot deployment of our clinical decision support systems with a number of GPs in Dublin to enable them to appropriately access imaging on behalf of their patients,” O’Gorman said.

xWave has also launched its platform in other countries, with a recent partnership with the Royal College of Radiologists in the UK. In June, this organisation warned that healthcare backlogs and a shortage of radiology consultants is creating delays in the treatment of cancers and other life-threatening conditions.

The partnership means xWave’s technology is being deployed across NHS hospitals in the UK. The start-up said it is working with a partnership of eight NHS trusts that covers more than 5m patients, to develop a system to support radiology teams.

“Our mission is to save lives by ensuring that patients get the best test first,” O’Gorman said. “Although the achievement of this mission started with radiology, our intention is to broaden our work across all medical diagnostics.”

Digital tools for cancer patients

While xWave is planning to expand its technology to other diagnostic devices, a recent partnership in the UK is focusing on the cancer care backlog.

UK treatment and research centre, Guy’s Cancer, recently launched a digital cancer care platform for its patients and care teams.

The centre has partnered with Careology to develop this platform. Careology is a digital platform that helps people living with cancer to navigate their treatment, by using mobile technology to connect them with clinicians and caregivers.

The two organisations have entered a five-year collaboration to advance innovation in cancer care by developing new digital tools. It is hoped this partnership will lead to better support for cancer patients, along with improved clinical insight, data and operational enhancements.

Dr Majid Kazmi is the chief of cancer services and deputy medical director of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. Kazmi said he is a “passionate advocate” for the adoption of patient centred digital technology.

“Digital technology has the potential to help patients and carers to be better informed and supported as well as giving healthcare workers the relevant information that allows them to provide a more responsive service and frees up time to care.”

Careology CEO Paul Landau said there is a “huge opportunity” for digital technology to transform the delivery of traditional cancer care.

“We are creating important technology that provides enhanced support for the patient as well as improved clinical insight, data and operational enhancements,” Landau said.

“Our collaboration with the Trust will allow us to accelerate the development and uptake of this vital new category with a world-class partner to help transform traditional cancer care through scalable technology so more people receive the best possible care.”

Akara: Cleaning up the disinfection process

Another Irish company is looking at ways to reduce healthcare backlogs, through the power of robotics.

Akara was spun out of Trinity College Dublin in 2019 and has focused on developing AI and robots for the healthcare sector.

This started out with Stevie, a social care robot designed to interact with older people and help out in nursing homes and retirement communities.

In 2020, the start-up revealed its disinfection robot Violet, which could autonomously navigate a room and disinfect it using ultraviolet light. Working with the HSE, it has been deployed at Irish hospitals.

The start-up said the idea for air decontamination robots was born out of Covid-19 pressures, where thorough cleaning of air was paramount to avoid infection spread.

Recently, Akara has taken its technology to other countries, to support their disinfection efforts. One of its healthcare robots was recently trialed at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (RCHT). The machine was used in procedure rooms where the air has a higher chance of contamination.

After certain medical examinations, hospital rooms need to be left vacant for periods of more than 25 minutes to let clean air come in through vents. Akara said its robot can reduce this downtime to 10 minutes, allowing more procedures to take place.

In October, RCHT deputy director of infection prevention and control, Joanne Taylor, said the machine had “definitely improved things for patients” thanks to the reduced downtime.

She estimated that the robot could enable as many as 2,400 additional procedures a year, “which would have a very significant effect on reducing the waiting lists”.

Akara has also partnered with an Estonian hospital to bring new disinfection software to its workers. This partnership aims to assist staff in their cleaning and disinfection procedures, by digitally logging cleaning tasks using Akara’s digital platform.

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