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NHS readies data-driven health checks

The government takes another step towards ramping up use of data-driven technologies in the public health system, with expected benefits including reduced pressure on public resources

The UK government has announced plans to replace standard health checks with “personalised” prevention driven by data.

According to health secretary Matt Hancock, the idea is to make traditional health check-ups “a thing of the past”, by using new data-driven technology and techniques.

A review announced 16 August 2019 will investigate how the new NHS Health Checks will be supported by predictive tools that take factors such as age, where individuals live, their DNA and preferences into account.

“Personalised, preventative healthcare is mission critical to the future-fit healthcare service we want to build. We must harness the latest technology and techniques to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach of the past,” Hancock said.

“The review we are announcing today will be an important step towards achieving that, helping us to find data-led, evidenced-based ways to support people to spot, manage and prevent risks to their health through targeted intervention,” he added.

Currently, health checks are offered to any individual aged between 40-74 through the NHS and are intended to spot the early signs of major conditions that cause early death, including stroke, kidney disease, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The government argues that the new checks powered by a thorough investigation of individual’s lives and habits will “empower” people by reducing their likelihood to develop serious conditions.

However, use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is seen by government not only as a way to provide better services to patients, but as a means to reduce pressure on resources across the NHS, with plans in the horizon to reward organisations for investing in those tools.

In February, Michael Ekpe, chief digital and technology officer at Public Health England (PHE), said at a conference that the “ambition for preventive prediction is huge”, but the plan was to “start small”.

According to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), the review will look at ways of maximise uptake of the data-driven checks.

It will also include a detailed investigation into the potential digitisation of health checks and a possible increase of the range of advice provided by the NHS, such as prevention of musculoskeletal problems or early action on hearing loss. It is unclear whether that additional advice would be provided the existing NHS platforms.

The review will also explore a specific check-up for those approaching retirement age to help prevent or delay future care needs.

The new push towards “personalised” health checks follows government plans to use technologies such as AI and increased expectations of personal data shared by patients for the purposes of preventive healthcare.

According to a greenpaper published by the Cabinet Office and the DHSC in July, the government is looking to accelerate projects around prevention and detection of conditions at an early stage, while enabling a greater degree of self-care.

To support that goal, Public Health England (PHE) will start working with digital delivery unit for the healthcare system, NHSX, to build a portfolio of innovations that will support the evaluation and modelling of predictive prevention projects at scale.

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