Can a digital-first NHS fix the doctor shortage crisis?
Written by Dr Kultar Garcha
, 3 min read
The NHS doesn’t have enough doctors or nurses. And we’re not just talking about missing a handful. We are short by 3,000 doctors and over 30,000 nurses. The stats are compelling and the situation is predicted to get worse. In 5 years’ time we’re expected to have a gap of 7,000 doctors and nearly 70,000 nurses (and that’s *shush* even before we talk about any impact of Brexit). We have to do something about this.
The medical profession is facing a perfect storm - burnout, stress, pay issues, working conditions, complaints from patients in an ever more litigious society and a huge increase in bureaucracy - all combined with a rising population. The staffing shortfall figures, whilst stark, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. There is a huge amount that we can, and should, do to support our medical colleagues. But it will take a lot of time, and even then, will it be enough?
The UK rightly prides itself on its NHS - who doesn’t look aghast at the spiralling fees in the US and shake their head at the sheer number of people who are forced into poverty by the cost of their healthcare? But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the rest of the world.
Take Rwanda. Perhaps not a country you would instantly associate with driving medical innovation, but they have had to. In a country of 12 million people, they have only 1,200 doctors. It makes our numbers look positively healthy. Most people there cannot see a nurse easily, let alone a doctor. Not all of the population are fortunate enough to have our ready access to the web, and the freedom this brings to go online to find out more about our illnesses. And yet, using just their feature phones (think your old Nokia) 2 million of them have access to doctors and nurses, who can speak to them, discuss their symptoms and send them a code by text that they can use to pick up a prescription. It costs a one-time registration fee of 200 Rwandan dollars (US 20¢) and is run by the private company Babyl (the Rwandan arm of Babylon Health) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rwandan government.
The system has been transformative. Up to 3,000 people per day have consultations with just 75 doctors and 120 nurses. They’re not replacing doctors, they’re augmenting them, enabling others to get on with the cases that require hands-on care in hospitals and health centres.
We don’t have to follow exactly what Rwanda does, we face many different issues, but we can start to discuss how we should do things differently. I work for Babylon Health, I see the value in going digital-first and support the NHS plans to do so, but if we are going to ensure everyone in the UK has the care they deserve then we really need organisations and patients to come together, think outside the box and work out how to solve this. We are facing a crisis, but at least we can see it coming.
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