Harnessing innovation to tackle the burden faced by the healthcare system Leave a comment

Harnessing innovation to tackle the burden faced by the healthcare system© iStock/Chinnapong

CEO of Sky Medical Technology, Bernard Ross, outlines the critical role of the MedTech industry in alleviating the burden faced by the global healthcare system.

The BBC recently reported that, as of the end of November 2021, more than six million people were waiting for routine operations in the UK.1 This was the first time this figure had been hit in the history of the NHS and demonstrated the scale of the backlog in routine operations caused by the COVID-19 health crisis and its knock-on effect on the wellbeing of the nation and the healthcare system.

The number – which represents not far short of 10% of the entire UK population – covered a reporting period before the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and threw the NHS under additional pressure over the festive period. The next reported number is likely to be higher still.

An international fight for healthcare systems

Pre-pandemic, the UK government aimed to offer those that needed non-urgent surgery a procedure within 18 weeks. In 2018, it was reported that hospitals achieved this around 88% of the time. This demonstrates that, even before COVID-19, many patients were waiting a significant amount of time for surgery.2

This is not an issue unique to the UK healthcare system. Research conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that waiting times for ‘elective’ or non-emergency surgery have increased across the economies surveyed, with median wait times for cataract surgery averaging 92 days. For hip replacement, it was 113 days, and for knee replacement, it was 189 days.3 In Poland, patients can wait almost 250 days on average for cataract surgery, while in Estonia hip replacement patients are waiting on average 282 days.2 The healthcare system crisis is a global phenomenon.

Magnifying existing issues within the healthcare system

In 2020-2021, The King’s Fund – an independent charitable organisation working to improve health and care in England – reported that the UK spent £192 billion on health and social care. This was some £50bn more than the previous year and represents approximately 10.2% of the country’s GDP.4 This is by no means out of sync with other countries and their healthcare systems. Indeed, it is close to the average figure reported by the OECD.

Despite this increase in spending, and the NHS vastly increasing the number of tests and treatments offered in the summer of 2021 in response to the COVID-19 backlog,5 elective surgery waiting lists continued to rise.

The reality is that the COVID crisis has brought into sharp focus an issue that has developed over decades. The global population has been growing older and living longer and the proportion of people retired, compared to those in work, has increased exponentially. Across the world, whether countries deploy a national healthcare service or not, the demand for healthcare is growing just as the number of people that are in work and can pay for it is falling.

The pandemic has acted as a perfect storm to accelerate these issues, with overstretched healthcare workers having to focus on the immediate crisis at the cost of the wider wellbeing of the population. Furthermore, the nature of the virus has led to thousands of healthcare workers having to isolate for periods to avoid this risk of further transmission, leaving fewer people to carry out both routine and emergency procedures.

Across the world, whether countries deploy a national
healthcare service or not, the demand for healthcare is
growing just as the number of people that are in work and can
pay for it is falling © iStock/vorDa

The burden of delay

For each of the six million people on a waiting list in the UK, there is nothing routine about their condition. Patients waiting for a cataract operation suffer from sensitivity to light and glare as well as clouded, blurred or dimmed vision. They may struggle to see well at night. This can impact people’s ability to work and therefore support themselves and their families. Those waiting for a hip or ankle replacement can be in constant pain. Many are unable to walk, leading to issues around lack of social contact and independence.

The burden of delay is not limited to the individual. If people are unable to work because of their condition, they may require increased access to benefits systems, adding to the overall national cost of a condition. If their condition means reducing their working hours, they will be paying fewer taxes. They are likely to need more GP and hospital appointments. Prolonged delays to surgery may lead to other conditions such as obesity through lack of movement or mental health issues caused by loneliness. While a hip replacement operation may cost somewhere between £10,000 to £15,000, it is not unreasonable to estimate the total impact on the economy of such an operation as comfortably double this – and grows as delays increase.

This is not to say that healthcare systems are not doing everything they can to reduce this burden. Healthcare professionals have a history of challenging the status quo to improve patient outcomes. Surgery techniques have radically changed to deliver better healthcare outcomes and doctors are constantly looking to speed recovery to avoid issues of bed blocking and increase the volume of elective operations.

Innovation breeds new solutions

Perhaps the biggest opportunity to address these challenges to healthcare systems’ capacity comes in combining technology with medicine in a bid to generate better patient outcomes.

The medical technology (MedTech) sector has seen substantial growth in recent years – a trend that is expected to continue. The European medical technology market is estimated to be worth more than £102.5bn, with Germany, France, and the UK leading the way in research, development, and implementation of new medical devices.6

Indeed, prior to the pandemic in 2019, the total annual revenue of the global MedTech industry stood at £370.9bn — representing an increasing share of the overall global healthcare sector. By 2025, the global medical devices industry is expected to reach a valuation of £440.5bn, growing at an average of 5.4% per year.

This trend has been accelerated by the pandemic. As COVID-19 challenged the traditional healthcare processes it forced the healthcare system integrated into every country to quickly implement new solutions, such as teleconsultations and the increased use of remote monitoring to manage patients. This helped demonstrate the transformative potential of technology to healthcare systems.

MedTech can have a significant impact driving transformation around how care is provided in the healthcare system, enabling healthcare professionals to focus on the critical. For example, remote monitoring can provide doctors with alerts that inform them of patients’ vital signs, but healthcare professionals will still need to interpret these.

Faster recovery, more capacity

One of the areas with the most potential is MedTech devices that empower patients’ faster recovery. Devices that reduce swelling, for example, or heal wounds more quickly, can enable patients to manage an increased part of post-operative recovery at home. This has several positive outcomes. For the healthcare system, reducing time spent in hospital recovery reduces bed blocking and can free up extra capacity to perform more operations.

Faster recovery after surgery also reduces the risk of patient complications. Immobile patients are at a higher risk of blood clots, known as venous thromboembolism (VTE). Around 55 – 60% of all VTE cases occur during or following hospitalisation7, resulting in approximately 25,000 deaths in England each year alone.8

Sustained time in the hospital can also increase the risk of infection. According to the World Health Organization, healthcare-associated infections are the most frequent adverse event in healthcare delivery worldwide.9 10% of patients in developing countries and 7% in developed countries will acquire at least one healthcare-associated infection during their time in hospital. Perhaps most importantly, patients that are using MedTech devices to hasten recovery are playing a significant role in their wellbeing.

MedTech empowering improved patient wellbeing

Like many industries, COVID-19 has turbocharged a trend in the healthcare system that was already manifesting. Hospital waiting lists for routine operations were growing before the pandemic, but the impact on the healthcare crisis has hastened the need to generate meaningful positive change. If any positive has come from the pandemic it is that change that would ordinarily have taken a decade has been implemented in weeks or months. The challenge now is to create a healthcare system that can address not only current needs, but future ones and effectively manage the backlog of elective surgery. The MedTech industry has a critical part to play in delivering the ingenious solutions that will help healthcare systems manage demand today and tomorrow.


  1. BBC News. [Internet]. 2022. www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-59972628
  2. The Guardian. 2018. Available from: www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/13/nhs-operation-waiting-lists-reach-10-year-high-at-43m-patients
  3. World Population Review. [Internet]. 2021. worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/health-care-wait-times-by-country
  4. The King’s Fund. [Internet]. 2022. Available from: www.kingsfund.org.uk/audio-video/key-facts-figures-nhs
  5. NHS England. [Internet]. 2021. Available from: www.england.nhs.uk/2021/09/nhs-delivers-millions-of-routine-treatments-in-toughest-summer/
  6. SRG Talent. [Internet]. 2021. Available from: www.srgtalent.com/blog/why-vcs-are-rushing-to-invest-in-medtech-innovation
  7. Thrombosis Statistics. [Internet]. 2018 [accessed 2018 Oct]. Available from: www.thrombosisuk.org/thrombosis-statistics.php
  8. House of Commons Health Committee. The prevention of venous thromboembolism in hospitalised patients. London: The Stationary Office. [Internet]. 2005 [accessed 2018 Oct]. Available from: publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmhealth/
  9. World Health Organisation. Healthcare-associated infections. Available from: www.who.int/gpsc/country_work/gpsc_ccisc_fact_sheet_en.pdf

Bernard Ross
Sky Medical Technology

This article is from issue 21 of Health Europa Quarterly. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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