Celebrating the NHS at 70: Inventions decade by decade

4th July, 2018

Anne Blackwood, Chief Executive
Health Enterprise East

Originally published by Med-Tech Innovation News

If you ask people what they think about the NHS, the first response is very often one of heartfelt affection - unsurprising, given that nearly all of us interact with the NHS at the most vulnerable times of our lives, and typically find medical expertise and quality of care when we do so.

However, if asked, I wonder how many people in the general population would say they considered the NHS to be a place of innovation? The media narrative on this front typically focuses on the significant funding challenges facing the organisation which have led to the many patient frustrations.

As the NHS embarks on its eighth decade, however, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that the spirit of innovation, which led to the creation of a unique health service free to all at the point of delivery, is alive and well within the organisation.

There are countless innovators working today in the NHS, as evidenced by the roughly 200 innovation disclosures that Health Enterprise East receives each year from NHS staff. This pioneering spirit has manifested itself all the way through the NHS’ existence, leading to hundreds of life-saving and life-changing technologies, many of which are still in widespread use today.

Sadly, it is a relatively widely-accepted fact that the NHS has been slow to adopt new innovation. Its suppliers are forced to battle against a fragmented marketplace that lacks a clear route to market, budget silos that impact buyers’ ability to realise savings directly, and a short-term focus on cash-releasing savings at the expense of longer-term benefits.

However, to mark this major milestone in the NHS’ life, we have picked out some of the most transformative technologies over the last seventy years that have been invented or first implemented in a clinical setting within the NHS. While the list is of course subjective, it does highlight the need for continued support for innovation from policymakers, not only in the form of funding, but also in terms of redesigned services and care pathways to deliver the swifter adoption of the most exciting new technologies.

1949: Intraocular lens

Harold Ridley invented and implanted the first intraocular lens (IOL). As a surgeon specialising in ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, Ridley helped many RAF pilots with eye injuries, and noted that acrylic fragments did not trigger infection in the same way that glass fragments did. This sparked the idea for the creation of the IOL, which is now widely viewed as having revolutionised the practice of ophthalmology. Despite initial reticence and scepticism when the procedure was first performed, cataract surgery with implantation of an IOL is now considered to be one of the safest operations in the world.

1958: First use of ultrasound in obstetrics

The idea of using an industrial sonar with pregnant women must have seemed outlandish when Glasgow’s Ian Donald first suggested it, shortly after the Second World War. However, he worked with a local electronics company to refine the instrument and eventually came up with ultrasound technology, and now pregnant women across the UK, and their medical teams, can now enjoy accurate images of their unborn babies. Ultrasound technology is also widely used in diagnostic applications in other fields of medicine.

1962: Total hip replacement

The first full hip replacement was carried out by John Charnley in Wrightington Hospital. So keen was he to refine his design, that he asked permission from his early patients to take back their hips post mortem, to enable him to check for wear and tear and to make appropriate modifications for newer versions.

1978: World’s first test tube baby born in the UK

Louise Brown, the world’s first baby to be born using IVF technology, celebrates her 40th birthday on 25 July this year. While her birth at Oldham General Hospital caused controversy, with certain quarters claiming the new technology was ‘playing with life’, IVF and fertility technology have gone on to make the dream of parenthood accessible to thousands of families.

1986: World’s first combined heart, liver & lung transplant

The first successful heart, liver and lung transplant was performed by a team led by Roy Calne and John Wallwork in a gruelling 12-hour operation at Cambridgeshire’s Papworth Hospital. As well as constituting a ground-breaking medical achievement, the operation is viewed as paving the way culturally for wider acceptance of organ donation and transplant technology by both clinicians and the general public.

1991: World’s first robotic surgery

Designed by a team at Imperial College London, PROBOT became the first robot to actively remove tissue from a patient in a clinical setting, cutting back an enlarged prostate gland under the direction of a surgeon. Robotic-assisted surgery now enables surgeons to perform complex, minimally invasive procedures with ever greater precision.

2000: World’s first gene therapy (GT) trials for children without an immune system

Building on its ongoing research into paediatric medicine, Great Ormond Street Hospital launched the world’s first gene therapy trials for children born without functioning immune systems. By 2011, gene therapy had cured 14 children with previously fatal forms of severe combined immunodeficiency.

2013: World’s first bionic hand

The world’s first fully articulated prosthetic hand was developed by an NHS employee in Scotland. The i-Limb allows the wearer to move individual fingers and perform 24 different grips either by muscle movement or via a smartphone app, and has the potential to transform the lives of amputees, war veterans and those born with limb defects.

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