With healthcare budgets spread thin and resources being stretched to breaking point, what can be done to take the pressure off of our suffering health services?
Here’s a figure for you: 51 million. That’s the number of “unnecessary” visits made by people in England and Wales to their GPs or hospital A&E departments every year.
Want a definition of “unnecessary”? Try this one: 40,000 of those were for dandruff. Yes, that terrible life-threatening malady that is generally best tended to through the use of medicated shampoo that can be bought at any pharmacy without a prescription.
On hearing this astonishing figure, my editor went into dandruff-apologist mode and suggested that this must be some chronic avalanche-style dandruff, the type of dandruff that coats the streets in a five-foot radius around the sufferer. But I don’t buy it. 40,000 such people every year would mean a white Christmas every day.
Far more likely is the lack of education about the proper use of doctors and hospitals, akin to the type of emercengy services caller who thinks that the robbery of a snowmanmerits immediate and emergency assistance.
So what to do about this perennial problem? After all, while it’s all too easy to snigger, clearly these people were worried enough to seek professional help. Nevertheless, as Dr Paul Sillman, a GP and member of the national Self Care Forum, points out, "We have a growing older population in England [and, he might add, throughout the western world]. More people are living longer with complex or long-term health conditions - this is great news for everyone (the longer lifespan, not the health conditions - ed), but it does mean we need to take steps so that we can focus more resources on these potentially vulnerable groups of people."
Here’s my recommendation for dealing with this: let’s take a leaf out of our own recommendations to the developing world and invest in mHealth – and I don’t just mean financially, I mean mentally.
The devexwebsite featured a special report this week on the investment in mHealth by western countries as part of their commitment to development aid. The feature reveals that 87% of the world had mobile subscriptions by the end of last year, and innovative use of the technology represents a cheap solution to reaching patients without their needing to come in to doctors’ surgeries.
So how can we apply this to the west? Well, here’sa start: a mobile app that helps patients to self-diagnose themselves. So you type in ‘my scalp is shedding’ and it tells you that the most likely diagnosis is that you have dandruff and you should go and speak to your pharmacist.
The trouble of course with apps like these is that they are not yet properly endorsed by the health industry. The Self Care Forum is a great initiative, a giant leap in the right direction. The trouble is, that before writing this article, I’d never heard of it. And I live in England. I have never had any form of self-diagnosis tool recommended to me by my GPs – indeed, they always seem pretty sceptical about any form of self-diagnosis.
Something has to give. There can be little doubt that, with an aging population, action needs to be taken to reduce the burden of “unnecessary” visits to doctors. So if doctors are sceptical about the tools currently available, more of them should get involved with projects like the upcoming NHS Hack Day, and create ones that they can endorse.
And then they should endorse them to the hilt. Not enough use is being made of social media. Not enough use is being made of patient forums like Drugs.comor PatientsLikeMe. And perhaps most importantly, not enough use is being made of doctors themselves – prescribing apps and forums should become as commonplace as prescribing antibiotics.
We in the pharma industry are key to making this happen. We have the global reach, we have the financial clout. And if we’re serious about maintaining high levels of patient care, we should use both of those things to make a serious change to the everyday business of healthcare in the west.
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