Healthcare innovation will be ever more vital to the ongoing process of recovery, renewal, and transformation in 2024, enhancing NHS Scotland’s capacity and capability to achieve more with less.

Progressive, innovative thinking remains a key enabler for healthcare improvement. Yet, despite what some commentators suggest against the backdrop of increasing artificial intelligence (AI) visibility in all our lives, that evolution will still be primarily human led.

People are the true drivers of improvement – the NHS thinkers and doers who use their everyday experiences and insights to first identify and then help develop meaningful solutions. Yes, technology can be the next step in accelerating concepts to where innovators want them to go, but enhancing patient outcomes starts with inspirational ideas.

Of course, the primary focus in the here and now is on ensuring that patients receive the care they need as quickly as possible while better managing demand, saving the NHS both time and resources.

Nevertheless, priority innovations will become ever more prominent across 2024 for their transformative nature and significant impact on improving the health of the nation. InnoScot Health believes those top priorities will be:

  1. Transitioning ever more towards embedding digitisation in everyday care

Undoubtedly data, applications, and automation will increasingly become part of the everyday experience of treatment and care next year.

Not only will this general trend be more marked in the drive to improve Scottish health, it will also play a vital role in making care more accessible, accountable, and applicable to the way people in a digitally connected society are now living their lives.

The delivery of remote healthcare and telemedicine through utilisation of digital devices that most now own or have access to will only continue to grow – saving time and resources for both patient and NHS – with connectivity barriers being increasingly broken down by sustained Government investment in Scotland-wide 4G and 5G technology.

NHS Scotland’s Near Me video service is now a staple of remote healthcare that is used around 20,000 times per week, providing reassuring and responsive help, while enhancing recovery rates, response times, and diagnosis.

  • Scaling technology trials and innovation pilots 

This trend is well underway, but we can expect to see a great deal more of it happening across 2024. Much promising innovation has been identified during and since the pandemic – now it is time to ensure it is fit for adoption and prepare to accelerate it nationwide.

If there is an overarching theme to this, then it is predominantly tech-driven preventative and interventionist care delivery models with digitisation at the centre of both. Never has Scotland’s population been more aware of its own wellbeing, through exercise-tracking apps on smartphones and wearable devices that fit seamlessly into people’s lives, encouraging less sedentary lifestyles.

It is also a shift to a world where digital tools can help to predict and avoid potential health issues.

That, in turn, is helping to shift the focus of the healthcare industry towards preventative medicine. Having access to patient information can allow health specialists to address problems early and swiftly and ensure that patients’ needs are being met.

  • Sustainable solutions

Arguably, the NHS Scotland target to reach Net Zero emissions by 2040 is a long way off – but in reality, it is not. If we are to collectively achieve Net Zero by that date then a lot of hard work has to be undertaken, and ideas bedded in, beginning now. Not only must we focus on recovery, it must be a green recovery – one that factors in, and seizes the opportunity, for integration of more environmentally-friendly healthcare practices. 

Earlier this year, NHS Scotland became the first national health service in the United Kingdom to stop using an environmentally damaging anaesthetic gas.

Used as an anaesthetic during surgery, Desflurane has a global warming potential 2,500 times greater than carbon dioxide. Its removal from use in hospital theatres across NHS Scotland is now saving emissions equivalent to powering 1,700 homes every year.

The National Green Theatres Programme has followed, aiming to cut the high emissions and waste typically generated in surgery, while maintaining the highest levels of patient safety and quality of care.

The programme further features a number of measures including moving away from single use instruments/consumables, introducing waste segregation, and switching from pre-operative intravenous to oral paracetamol.

These are all significant steps forward – but more sustainable innovation will be a pressing need in 2024.

  • AI-powered optimisation

While I said earlier that AI is not the immediate silver bullet for healthcare improvement and will remain very much human led, there is nevertheless no denying the power of what it can achieve when put to work carefully and in the right circumstances.

Indeed, AI is already demonstrating its vast potential for supplementing NHS Scotland expertise by identifying priority cancer cases quickly and effectively in trials.

AI holds huge promise in other ways too. Faced with persistent pressures, NHS staff could soon be using it to adapt workforce strategies through better workflow automation and optimisation, accelerating routine tasks, helping to alleviate staff pressures, and allowing more focus on the patient.

This may also mean more flexibility for healthcare professionals, assisting with the attraction and retention of talent.  

  • Collaboration and integration

You could say that it is a mindset or an approach rather than an innovation as such, but I would beg to differ. Collaboration and improved integration underpins everything progressive and is arguably the most important step that Scottish healthcare can take right now. 

It is the fundamental recognition that innovation does not happen in isolation, and we need to be better at it as a nation – not only working more closely together as part of the triple helix approach to unite the collective knowledge of NHS, industry, and academia instead of working in silos, but also enriching our talent pool by encouraging overseas investment and attracting more diverse insights.

In a more direct sense, I am also talking about virtual collaboration that can mitigate the impact of staff and expertise shortages. Cloud-based hub-and-spoke models offer an opportunity for virtual over-the-shoulder support and mentoring from experts in their particular field to less experienced colleagues, while virtual collaboration could offer real-time communication with fellow clinicians and patients, making expertise more widely available while aiming to achieve the same standards of care across NHS Scotland.

InnoScot Health is an open door to all NHS staff, encouraging and supporting new and innovative approaches to healthcare. It aims to be at the forefront of transformative collaboration in 2024.