In his keynote speech at this year's Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester, Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, unveiled plans for a digital-led NHS by 2018.
While a logical development in today's increasingly online world, this announcement brings into sharp focus the wider digital transformation currently being undertaken by the NHS; a transformation largely driven by the need for the health service to do less with more, and deliver care to a growing, ageing population, despite ever tightening budgets and dwindling resources.
The innovative technology delivered as part of this digital transformation when it comes to clinical care procedures is second to none. Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, for example, issues patients with wearable devices, which can upload clinical, biometric, and lifestyle data to their patient records. And surgeons at Alder Hey use virtual reality technology to explore the hearts of young patients prior to carrying out critical operations.
Despite this, however, the NHS is arguably in a very early cycle of digital transformation when it comes to structuring or running a business. It appears that little value is ascribed to encouraging similar innovation in the back office, despite the role it plays in supporting everything that occurs on the front line. How, when able to deliver such high standards of clinical care, is the NHS able to justify still managing patient journeys using Excel spreadsheets?
With so much of the manual work taking place in its back offices simply outdated by today's standards, there's a real need for the NHS to automate more of its processes, practices and technology. A digital transformation is required to modernise its day-to-day functions, and enable it to deliver greater sustainability throughout the healthcare ecosystem.
Time to change
A belief that things should continue to be done in the way they always have been, accompanied by a sense of fear and misunderstanding around what may be involved, means there can often be a resistance to change within the NHS. An additional barrier comes as a result of the health service's culture of investing in short term, tactical fixes, as opposed to longer term, more strategic investments.
Their autonomy tends to lead NHS trusts to perceive themselves as unique, and that not one technology or solution is able to meet their particular needs. They will tend to do what they can with the internal resources they already have, thereby risking the recurrence of any issues they face.
By tackling problems at their root, however, rather than opting for a short-term fix, they will be more likely to succeed in preventing issues from occurring, rather than just curing whatever ails them.
There needs to be greater investment in the health service's workforce, training and support, to ensure that employees are equipped with technologies and skills that will improve their efficiency and, ultimately, the patient experience.
Rather than taking the traditional approach of simply increasing headcount to tackle a problem, a more logical – and financially sustainable – solution would be to embark on a programme of digital automation. For this to succeed, however, the NHS needs to embrace working with third party suppliers in the private sector who have greater experience in delivering robust digital technology solutions, and concentrate more on its core business of providing high quality care for its patients.
With every trust and provider believing itself and its requirements to be unique, the journey to consistent change being adopted nationwide within the NHS will be a long one. It's necessary, however, in order to improve efficiencies and sustainability for the benefit of clinical staff, executive, administrators and, of course, patients.
Maximising a precious asset
As in all sectors, the intelligent use of data lies at the heart of transforming the NHS. One of the healthcare industry's most precious resources, data is one of its most valuable assets.
Automating the management of its data is fundamental to driving through transformational change in the NHS.
Standardising data will allow all parties to ask necessary, intelligent questions during the entire patient journey, throughout every aspect of the healthcare ecosystem. Indeed, having access to trusted consolidated standardised data is particularly important for trusts when it comes to complying with referral to treatment (RTT) rules and the forthcoming emergency care data sets (ECDS) returns enforced by NHS England, and ensuring efficient emergency care.
Joined up, standardised data flows across each element of healthcare and social services will result in a holistic strategy for change, and will underpin the establishment of the best care for each individual citizen.
Digital transformation is already delivering exemplary clinical care across the NHS. By applying the same focus to transforming its back office operations in the same way, the health service will provide UK citizens with confidence in the knowledge that they are receiving the best quality care, whatever their condition.
Graham Bennett is director of healthcare, Insource.