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Northern Ireland Addressing Healthcare Challenge

11 December 2012

The current growing global crisis in healthcare is unsustainable, a leading University of Ulster bioengineer will tell an international gathering of medical researchers, industrialists and health sector professionals this week.

But, according to Professor Jim McLaughlin, Northern Ireland is well placed to effectively address many of these issues, thanks to the development of a Northern Ireland Connected Health Ecosystem.

Professor McLaughlin, who is a world leader in medical sensor technology, was speaking ahead of Wednesday’s NI Connected Health Eco Day, when over 150 leading medical technology researchers from Northern Ireland, the ROI, other UK and beyond will come together at the Jordanstown campus to establish a sustainable way forward for the sector.

As delegates gathered, Professor McLaughlin said there was an enormous opportunity for jobs growth, inward investment and pioneering research and development work offered by new developments in what’s become known as ‘connected health’ which brings together new healthcare technologies and radically reimagined and reorganised medical management and delivery processes to allow patients more freedom to lead their own lives.

Professor McLaughlin spoke out just days after Northern Ireland Health Minister Edwin Poots laid out the scale of the challenges facing our health care sector.

Speaking in the Assembly, Minister Poots said: “As in other parts of the Western World we face a combination of: demographic change with a growing and ageing population; increased demand and over-reliance on hospital beds; advances in medicines and technology; and rising public expectations. The projected demographic changes alone are striking. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million people. It is the fastest growing population in the UK, and it is continuing to grow.

“By 2020, the number of people over 75 years is expected to increase by 40% from that in 2009. The population of over 85 year olds is expected to increase by almost 20% by 2014, and by 58% by 2020. The system cannot stand still in the face of such change, particularly in the context of a very difficult financial and economic climate. This Review is not and cannot be about cost-cutting; it is about quality, accessibility and safety of patient care. However, as the financial situation tightens – as is obviously the case for all public services – there needs to be a radical shift in where and how that money is used.” (Health Minister Edwin Poots, Statement to the NI Assembly , 13 December 2012)

According to Professor McLaughlin, this week’s NI Connected Health Eco Day is about “big picture stuff” – how to drive healthcare policy forward in the context of the Compton Review.

“From a University point of view we have major interests in research and innovation, and we’ll be very much looking at how we can help local companies and SMEs innovate, and how the University can attract some of the larger international companies to Northern Ireland to take advantage of our capabilities and research facilities,” he said.

“The big issue for society is the growing cost of healthcare. We know a lot about the issues of our ageing populations, The cost of healthcare is just unsustainable, and one of the major areas of need is to find ways to put in place health technology to help people live well at home, as well as much faster diagnostic systems that can, when people do have to go into hospital or health centres, vastly reduce the runaround time for diagnosis.

“For example, it used to take two or three days for a patient to recover once they had had a stent put into their body. Now, patients are out of hospital within a couple of hours – and it is technological developments that have enabled this progress.

“The challenge in the connected health area, involving communications systems, advanced sensor technology, very advanced computational algorithms, is that once you get to this stage you are actually asking the technology to aid the the role of the clinician. If it is robust in doing that, it can help clinicians and and nursing staff make better decisions– and make better use of their time. “

The consequences of not seizing the opportunities offered by developments in connected health may be very serious:

“People don’t yet realise what is going to hit us,”said Professor McLaughlin.

“ Life expectancy has increased enormously over the past 30 to 40 years. It has had about a 20% increase, and that is likely to continue. People are living longer and they will need healthcare for longer. The issues with elderly patients getting ill and the need for high quality costly care going in to that area, will bring soaring healthcare bills – and the rest of the Northern Ireland infrastructure will begin to suffer. The status quo is not sustainable. Unless we can reduce healthcare costs dramatically, other areas of society are bound to suffer.”


Professor McLaughlin is available for interview. Contact him via David Young, University of Ulster Media & Corporate Relations, 028 90 366178

Notes for Editors

Connected Health:

“Connected Health is a term used to describe a model for healthcare delivery that uses technology to provide healthcare remotely and allows patients more freedom to lead their own life. It aims to optimise the use of healthcare resources and to provide increased and flexible opportunities for patients to engage with clinicians and to better self-manage their care. Connected Health encompasses telehealth and remote care options such as home care, and disease and lifestyle management. It can help to manage chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes. It should also lead to reduced unplanned admissions to hospital and to improved outcomes for patients and their families. Those are potentially significant benefits for the health and social care system in Northern Ireland.
(Health Minister Edwin Poots, speech to NI Assembly, 4 December 2012)

Professor James McLaughlin

Professor McLaughlin’s track record in relation to publications and research funding is outstanding – he is cited in over 250 publications in mainstream international journals and conferences and has attracted over £23 million of external research funding, including substantial funding from the UK Research Councils. His research standing has been recognised by invitations to deliver keynote addresses at prestigious conferences; collaboration with many research-led universities across the world; and the award of an OBE for services to research and economic development in Northern Ireland.
As Director of Ulster’s Engineering Research Institute, Professor McLaughlin has strongly influenced the growth of engineering research, particularly in connected health, at the University and the development of a culture of research excellence amongst staff and research students. He is widely engaged in mentoring colleagues and supervising research students, and is founder and director of spin-out companies such as Intelesens responsive healthcare and SiSaF which deals with innovations in topical drug delivery systems.
Professor McLaughlin is currently a member of the Northern Ireland Science Industry Panel (NI Matrix) and was a panel member of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008).