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Life sciences, medtech and the NHS must marry, says health secretary

Health secretary Wes Streeting wants the UK to be an international powerhouse for life sciences and medtech, and plans to turn the Department for Health and Social Care into a ‘public growth department’

The new secretary of state for health, Wes Streeting, wants to transform the NHS from an organisation relying on pagers and fax machines to a health service that drives innovation.

Speaking at the Tony Blair Institute’s Future of Britain conference earlier this week (9 July), Streeting said the NHS has suffered under constant changes in leadership, having gone through five health secretaries in two and a half years.

He said he recognised that both within the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the health and social care ecosystem, “they’ve had a hell of a lot of instability”.

“Moving from one health secretary to another brings instability and indecision, and it’s hard to get things done,” said Streeting. “They’ve lacked direction, they’ve lacked leadership, they’ve lacked recognition of the pain they’ve endured.

“There’s an opportunity for an incoming government to recognise those things, but also to lift people’s eyes to the horizon and be excited about the future.”

He said one of these opportunities is the UK’s life sciences and medical technology sector. “If we can marry the health and social care system with the incredible life science and medtech ecosystem we have in this country, we can be a powerhouse for the life sciences and medtech revolution in this country and the world,” said Streeting.

This links to his plan to turn the DHSC into a “public growth department” that contributes to economic growth through getting people back to work, focusing on public health and prevention. “It means ending the begging bowl culture, when the only interaction the Treasury has with DHSC is when we need more money,” he said.

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Streeting said this isn’t just about looking at the new technologies of the future, but also those tried and tested technologies that already exist. As echoed in Labour’s manifesto ahead of the election, he said he plans to double the number of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled CT and MRI scanners in the NHS, which would lead to productivity gains.

“That’s tech that exists today, not even the really revolutionary stuff that’s hurtling down the track towards us,” said Streeting, adding that when the manifesto was launched, he was inundated with emails from people working in the NHS, highlighting tech challenges such as having to enter numerous passwords just to log in and deal with a single patient.

“We need to shift from an analogue system that still has too many pagers and fax machines, to one that’s not only benefitting from, but driving the life science and medtech revolution here and internationally.”

These are promises the NHS has heard before. Previous health secretary Matt Hancock promised nearly nine nears years ago to bring the NHS into the 21st century with a “bonfire of the fax machines”, as he banned NHS organisations from purchasing them.

However, the new health secretary is keen on fixing what he calls a broken NHS. Labour has already promised to harness the power of technologies such as AI to transform diagnostic services, further develop the NHS App so that patients are “in control of their own health to better manage their medicine, appointments and health needs”, and digitising the red book record of children’s health.

In his 2023 speech on the party’s NHS reform agenda, prime minister Keir Starmer also promised to harness the genomics revolution, including a system where every baby born can undergo genomic testing to screen for rare diseases or predisposition to the “deadliest diseases”.

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