We must quell fears of innovation to fix the NHS

Joe Oakes

July 7, 2018

They say that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Unfortunately, the defeatist nature of many in the UK believes that to fight one, we must succumb to the insidious increase of the other. We must not accept this. We can reduce both – and it’s good news for everyone.

Theresa May announced on the 19th of June that an extra £20bn will be injected into the NHS by 2023. Upon the announcement of this policy, May was almost instantly buried in queries about where this money was coming from.

The first response seemed to have been pinched straight from the Leave campaign – a Brexit ‘dividend’. It was blindingly obvious. However, it is unlikely that this money would be enough. Once again, let down by the Government’s uninspiring pragmatism, the taxpayer will inevitably bear the burden.

More money for the NHS is a seemingly uncontroversial policy for any government to pursue — especially when a government is desperately pursuing votes. A poll by the Conservative ThinkTank ‘Onward’ revealed that improving local hospitals moved from 10th in the public’s list of priorities in 2012 to 3rd in 2018. Extra funds will give the service a positive boost, but it is imperative that this money is spent well.

The tax rise will happen, even if we don’t know what form it’s going to take. There will always be a huge movement in favour of increased spending in the NHS funded by a subsequent tax rise, but how can we ensure that the money is spent in such a way that we can avoid the same thing happening in the future?

The NHS is seriously struggling. It is crippled by its chronic inefficiency and procurement failings. Its short term issues, however, seem trivial when you consider its future challenges.

The biggest of these is Britain’s ageing population. In 2014, the average age of the UK citizen crept over 40 for the first time in history. While clearly this is something to be celebrated, the elderly cost a lot more to the NHS than young people do – with the costs of an 85 year old to the health service being over 5 times that of a 30 year old. The resulting impact, outlined by The Office of Budget Responsibility, is that £79 billion will need to be spent on healthcare and social care in the next 45 years.

There isn’t a Brexit dividend every week, so it is more than likely that you, the taxpayer, will suffer more.

However, the issues surrounding the NHS are not limited to government spending. The structural problems associated with the NHS are ones that need to be addressed by reform. To address its inefficiencies, we must embrace the future and accept the solutions afforded to us if we are to manage the long term problems the NHS faces. The answer – automation.

Indeed, increased use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) may prove to be costly in the short term through installation costs and redundancy payments. However, in the long-term, we will experience an inevitable increase in productivity and a reduction in costs: a long term solution to the NHS’s long term problems. In hospitals, robots can assist doctors in high pressure tasks such as diagnoses and surgical assistance, as well as simple repetitive tasks like admin, drug administration and feeding patients — your robot chef might also serve a slightly more interesting menu.

The biggest anxiety about automation is its threat to employment. John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of future technological unemployment in the ’30s seems to mirror the current pessimism surrounding the impact of AI. The same doubt plagued the population during the industrial revolution. A report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance found that around 800,000 jobs were lost to automation between 2001 and 2015. It did, however, created £3.5 million for the UK economy.

The UK adapts. It’s clearly what we’re good at. Not only should we not be concerned, we should be optimistic. The work covered by AI will successfully free up more time for personal attentiveness. Doctors can spend more time with their patients, and connect with them in a way they may have previously been too busy to do. Empathy and care are the distinguishing factor between robots and humans – a job they could never take. An automated NHS is a more efficient one, and one that can embrace these qualities. The vision for the future can therefore be a warmer one.

As the UK population continues to age and birth rates decrease, the topic of age will trickle into nearly every element of the political sphere. The NHS will always be near the forefront of this discussion, and we have an opportunity to pre-emptively tackle its future problems; saving our children and grandchildren from bearing the burden of a failing system. As hard as it may be, we need to see through our dystopian conceptions about the future of AI. We should open our minds to the possibilities that come with it and the freedom it can afford us. A wealthier, healthier life for everyone — sounds good to me.


Joe Oakes is an intern at the Taxpayers’ Alliance.


Written by Joe Oakes

Joe Oakes is Communications Officer at 1828.


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