Astronaut in outer space.

The UK Space Agency and NHS England are currently judging ideas for how technology originally designed for space could help solve major health and care challenges facing the NHS.

With up to £4 million available from the UK Space Agency, the competition, in collaboration with NHS England, focuses on tackling the four main challenges facing the National Health Service:

  • Managing long term conditions including joining up health and care services
  • Earlier diagnosis of cancer
  • Transforming GP services and other primary care
  • Meeting mental health needs

As the UK space sector grows so does its technology. The competition allows innovators to bid for money to turn space technology into life changing health care solutions. A number of applications will receive funding from the UK Space Agency in company with support and guidance from NHS England and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Emily Gravestock, UK Space Agency head of applications, said: “I am delighted with the number and calibre of entries into the NHS call for funding. The variety of ideas, and the innovation shown by the entrants has been enormous and ideas have come in from all areas – clinicians, the public and from industry.

“I am excited about working with ESA and NHS England to judge these ideas, to bring the best ones into reality, and, ultimately, to improve patient care.”

The UK space sector is growing rapidly, with world-leading space manufacturing capabilities and a 40% share of the global export market in small satellites. To maintain those numbers the sector supports 40,000 jobs and generates £14 billion in revenue.

Past examples of space technology being adapted for the NHS have revolutionised numerous areas within health care, such as pill cameras that can be swallowed by patients, dementia tracking slippers, apps that help prevent skin cancer and wearable monitors for the elderly to help prevent falls.

Professor Tony Young, national clinical director for innovation at NHS England, said: “The NHS has a long and impressive track record of world class innovation that improves patient care – from hip replacements to vaccines, medical scans to organ transplants and now genomics.

“As we prepare to set out a long term plan for our health service, this competition is helping us drive the use of innovative space technology to see if it can bring benefits for our patients.”

Converted space technology that is already helping the NHS includes:

  • Dementia tracking slippers: People in Dorset who are affected by dementia are trialling GPS soles to try and reduce hospital admissions. The discreet tracking tool can sit inside everyday footwear and alerts carers if the patient wanders outside their set parameters or ‘geo-fence’. The alert is sent via an app on an internet enabled device with the location of the wearer. This allows them to be found quickly and reduces the chance for them to encounter any harm. This simple device allows heightened independence to the wearer and peace of mind for the carer.
  • A pill-sized camera to diagnose gut problems: The video capsule endoscopy or pill cam is an approximately 2cm long device used to examine the lining of the small intestine. The capsule contains a miniature video camera and light source. This small capsule can help investigate anaemia, unexplained bleeding, suspected coeliac disease and abnormalities such as polyps. All while travelling painlessly through the patient, capturing images and sending them to a recording device for analyse by a clinician.
  • Tech to help prevent falls inspired by NASA: A wearable monitor which uses microelectromechanical (MEMS) gyroscope equipment, which was partly based on the breakthroughs of America’s space programme to monitor how people walk, is helping vulnerable and elderly people to avoid falls. A short 10 minute assessment with a physiotherapist can prescribe a personalised exercise programme to reduce the risk of falls.
  • Skin cancer app: Apps that use satellite technology can give a personalised risk assessment of your sun exposure, like the Happy Sun App. This could form part of care packages in the near future and to help inform patients of how to stay their safest in the sun.