Thursday, October 21, 2021

Apple moves to become a disruptive healthcare player

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Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Doing it this way will save the NHS some space

Apple is to ditch contactless payment methods and tell Apple Pay users to present their national insurance number when they leave the house.

With the new payment options, it hopes to entice users to “get healthy and choose an easy and convenient method to shop”.

The NHS is planning to produce medicines for free in A&E for first-time users under a new tender to work with manufacturers.

If all goes to plan, this scheme will be up and running in hospitals within the next year.

Relaxing the rules

However, not all those familiar with current policies will be entirely happy.

In the NHS, it is a criminal offence to put a private GP document that contains medical advice into the pockets of colleagues.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption End users are also in favour of gaining access to products and services using a national insurance number

And many people want to be able to use the NHS Pharmacy website to buy products in all British high streets without needing a prescription from a doctor first.

But the fact is, many apps and facilities rely on the free market to get funding to stay in business.

So because Apple – and other vendors – see such a sizable market there is a sense in which it is in their interests to provide services and products via such bodies.

It is a pattern which is apparent in most markets worldwide, such as in China.

“This is not a new approach, it has been done on smartphones and even in supermarkets,” says Anit Singh, a specialist pharmacist and HealthCare.com executive director.

“Apple can promote the fact that the National Health Service is closed to insurance plans,” he adds.

Enter the national insurance number

So what does it mean for the NHS and its users?

In Apple’s view, such a payment system will free up important NHS resources to be spent on more pressing issues and allow patients to make “comprehensive and regular healthcare decisions” and play a more active role in managing their own health.

This sense of control and self-determination in health will, if true, benefit patients in future, making it much easier to discuss the pros and cons of treatments with others.

But not everyone sees it this way.

Professor Vernon Watkins is a biomedical research director at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the 2009 book Irrelevant: The Power of Illicit Information and the Danger of ‘free and clear’ Healthcare.

In a blogpost published earlier this week, he said an NHS-based payment system is “eerily reminiscent of industrialised totalitarian regimes”.

He says he believes it will not improve the quality of healthcare.

“Government healthcare is not a commercial model but a public service,” he argues.

“The cause of market failure in healthcare would be jeopardised by providing an unvarnished commercial model of finance for healthcare but breaking the ties between the payment and delivery process that tie the individual to the institution.”

And then there are the effects it could have on some patients.

If the details of a patient’s relationship with the NHS get publicly known, there are concerns they might withdraw from the NHS – rather than seeking alternative options.

The concerns about patient anonymity in a phone number and digitised debit card seem to have been raised by the fact there are already some questions to be asked.

However, Apple has said privacy for iOS users will be “fully protected by end-to-end encryption”, and its products have huge “privacy buffering” built in.

On the other hand, without such a system there is no suggestion users will not be able to access their account and request a key to unlock it.

There will be some unhappy customers who do have a different opinion, though.

What the health sector needs is a real shake-up, not just an evolutionary rejig.

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