Happy 75th birthday NHS

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Today marks 75 years since the UK’s National Health Service was born, emerging from a post-war society with a promise to provide ‘healthcare services that are free for all at the point of delivery’.

It’s a promise that’s held true to this day – and though times have changed immeasurably since 1948, the right to free healthcare is still there for those who need it across the UK. Whether it’s helping deliver a new baby into the world, a trip or accident that requires treatment at A&E or a lifesaving operation, all of us, at some point, will have been supported by the NHS.

In the run-up to the NHS’ 75th birthday, I have been thinking about what it means to people – not just to our colleagues in BT’s healthcare team, but to communities across the nation. Personally, I started working in the NHS because I wanted to help people. And it’s this desire to help people and provide free healthcare to everyone, no matter your background or circumstances, which makes the NHS so treasured. It’s also one of the main reasons I joined the NHS and why I had such a fulfilling career spanning more than 20 years.

While I no longer work for the NHS, I’m still deeply passionate about it. When I joined BT, I knew I was working for a company that also cared about our National Health Service – and one thing that became immediately clear looking back at our shared history together, was just how forward-thinking the NHS has been in embracing technology, right from the start.

A long heritage of innovation

In recent years, the onset of the Covid pandemic has seen the health sector embrace digital technology at a rapid pace – by some estimates, making as much as seven years’ progress since it hit. And while the pandemic was undoubtedly a catalyst for innovation, it may surprise you to know just how much technology has played an important role for the NHS from the very start.

Looking through the BT archives, it’s clear that telecoms and tech have been there since the beginning. For example, in 1948 we stood alongside NHS colleagues, working to introduce new technologies to support the needs of patients, such as increasingly advanced hearing aids. And over the following decades we supported the health service as it rolled out even more innovations, including mouth-controlled communications devices for those who needed them. 

In the 1980s we developed radio pager systems for doctors and consultants which meant they could be alerted to an issue wherever they were in the hospital and could respond in a much faster way. We also pioneered an image transfer service that made it possible to carry out remote diagnostics – an area of medicine we continue to innovate and build on to this day.

As a trusted partner to the NHS, BT’s biggest strength is in its world class networks – and it’s these that have underpinned a lot of NHS systems over the years. From creating the HealthNet network and the NHSNet Intranet in the Eighties to getting the NHS Direct helpline off the ground in the Nineties to offer round-the-clock advice to patients, we’re proud to have worked together during some key milestones.

More recently, during the Covid pandemic, we worked with the NHS to install fibre connections at speed to the NHS Nightingale hospitals, as well as a network of vaccination centres across the UK.

Working together to transform health services

At BT, we’re committed to using tech to help build smarter, safer, more efficient healthcare services for everyone. Our approach to partnering with the NHS is based on trust and collaboration and as we enter a critical phase in the organisation’s history, we will continue to support its ongoing transformation and make sure everyone can harness the power of digital health services.

To enable this change, and to ensure that we’re creating technology and services that will continue to make a difference on the frontline, BT established a Clinical Advisory Board last year. It means that everything we do is clinically led and digitally enabled.

So what’s next? We’re working hand in glove with the NHS, and other expert partners, to co-create solutions to the challenges it faces. From virtual ward and virtual care technology that will help more patients to be monitored safely from the comfort of their own home, to remote diagnostics which connect clinicians with patients wherever they may be – we are leveraging technology to unlock benefits for patients and the NHS alike and support healthcare staff in providing the greatest care tomorrow, as well as today.

Today is a day to celebrate the NHS, to pay tribute to an organisation that has achieved so much and helped so many. And, to look ahead at what’s next for digital health: because while we know rock-solid networks and new technology can’t build more hospitals or train doctors and nurses, it can surely make the day-to-day experience of healthcare better for everyone.

Happy 75th birthday NHS. Here’s to many more to come.

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Professor Sultan Mahmud

Professor Sultan Mahmud is BT's Director of Healthcare

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