In NHS’s 70th year top doctors eye a giant leap for patient care with UK space agency

Top doctors today witnessed demonstrations of space technology that could be adapted for use in the National Health Service within years on a visit to Britain’s answer to NASA.

In the run-up to the NHS’s 70th anniversary, Professor Tony Young led the delegation to meet representatives of the UK Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire – known as the UK Space Gateway.

Among the technology they saw demonstrated were:

  • Environmental monitoring: An estimated 1.2 million people are living with diagnosed COPD. Through satellite monitoring, patients and those caring for them could be given constantly updated information about air quality in their area. This could help sufferers make informed decisions and provide early warning to increased risk of respiratory distress.
  • Satellite broadband: Over nine million people in England live in rural communities. Satellite broadband could give ambulance services real time patient information and allow them to send vital details ahead to hospitals.

Technology originally developed to explore the solar system and hunt new planets is already being used to support NHS patient care. This includes:

  • A wearable monitor that helps elderly and vulnerable people avoid falls uses microelectromechanical (MEMS) gyroscope equipment partly based on technological breakthroughs made as part of America’s space programme to monitor how people walk. The 10 minute assessment allows physiotherapists to prescribe a personalised exercise programme to reduce the risk of a fall. Former England cricketer Darren Gough is among those who have benefitted from similar motion sensing technology.
  • Cancer screening vans beam images directly back to assessment centres in a trial funded by the UK Space Agency’s Space for Smarter Government Programme. This reduces the time it takes to diagnose cancer or give people the all-clear and removes the need for paper records.

NHS England is working with Innovate UK, who are responsible for driving productivity and economic growth by supporting business, to invest a £100 million grant to improve connectivity through satellites to share health care information.  Some of the benefits could include personalised apps. For example:

  • One in 54 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma during their lifetime. Apps which use satellite technology to give personalised risk assessment of sun exposure, like the Happy Sun App, could form part of a patients package of care in the near future.

NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Innovation, Professor Tony Young said: “In the NHS’s 70th year we are using satellite technology to revolutionise breast cancer screening by beaming scans back to hospitals from mobile screening units next to shopping centres and speeding up diagnoses.”

UK Space Agency Head of Applications, Emily Gravestock said: “Technology from space is already improving our daily lives, and health is no exception. The NHS breast screening vans are a great example of how Britain’s world-leading space industry has come up with an innovative solution to support vital public services. As our space sector continues to grow, with support the support of Government’s Industrial Strategy, these opportunities will only increase.”