Public Services > Healthcare

Why the NHS is putting a plaster on its gaping wound

Published 23 February 2016

Implementing a single collaborative platform accessible to all healthcare professionals is key to successful digital transformation in healthcare, says EMC's James Norman


The introduction by Matt Hancock in the Sprint 16 event of a new GDS advisory board is just the first step towards helping improve and support collaboration across government - but currently, there has been no focus on health.

Towards the end of last year, the NHS announced a growing deficit of £1.6bn, and whilst Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently announced a £4.2 billion investment to help bring the NHS into the digital age, nothing new has been announced. As Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders has said, "rather than re-hashing old announcements, Jeremy Hunt needs to be telling the public how he intends to sort out the crisis facing our NHS."

One major cause of the deficit is the overspending on agency staff to cope with the added NHS pressures, as well as rising demand for services. To help tackle the current cash shortage, the Department of Health expects savings to be reinvested in frontline health services, as set out in the NHS' Five Year Forward View, as it expects £22bn of efficiencies to be made by 2021. Whilst heavy investment has already been made to tackle frontline operational problems, such as the introduction of the Electronic Health Record, the underlying problem is not being recognised, and therefore fixed.

The healthcare industry must take radical action sooner rather than later. The current re-injection of funding is not going to deliver transformation change, improve efficiencies and make cost savings. So what can be done to not only sustain the future of NHS, but help the current financial crisis and reduce growing pressures? These are the four things I believe will help drive digital transformation and minimise costs in healthcare:

1. Look beyond small-scale, frontline investments

Digital transformation within the NHS can only be realised and achieved through looking beyond the small-scale, local investments currently being made such as building a new NHS website, developing relevant apps and providing free wi-fi in hospitals. These are all commendable initiatives, but they are not tackling the fundamental problems faced today. The government must realise the need to change services not just in hospitals, but across all of the UK's health economy. This cannot be done at a local level through goodwill and years of local negotiation based on no national steer.

If new ways of working were to be implemented across all healthcare practices, such as automating processes, unnecessary waste on time and resource could be removed. For example, trusts can be merged, services rationalised and a single management structure created. What will be key to driving this transformation, will be having patient requirements at the forefront of this change and delivering services derived from their needs.

However, the NHS doesn't currently have the technology infrastructure to change its fundamental practices. At the moment, health organisations are unable to deliver better services and patient care due to having various legacy systems in place that cannot speak to each other. This must be addressed if progress can be made.

2. Implement collaborative infrastructure

The NHS already has plans in place to remove outdated technology and introduce new services like click and collect for prescriptions. It's encouraging to see that IT expert Professor Bob Wachter has launched a review, to be conducted by a new National Advisory Group on Health IT in England, of computer systems across the NHS , looking at what has worked well and what needs improving. Whilst there have already been investments in wi-fi in hospitals and EPRs, these advances are not going to transform the way healthcare services are provided. Using technology, manual processes need to turn into automated functions freeing up time and resource to be invested in elsewhere.

Whilst GDS has already proposed a common platform, this needs to go beyond central government, providing a single source of shared information for front line services. Investment into collaborative platforms that work across government departments - including healthcare - will be key to easing financial pressures. As revealed in our Future of Government Digital Services report , there is a demand to build collaborative platforms to drive efficiency. It will also enable patients, GPs and clinicians to reshape the patient pathway and reduce the cost in how services are provided.

But a collaborative platform would not be able to operate without insights from patient data. A report from EMC and Volterra highlighted the need for acceleration in the uptake of data analytics techniques and technologies to drive £16bn or more in efficiency savings to plug the NHS funding gap. The lack of predictive analytics and collaboration is leading to failures and financial inefficiencies that are unsustainable in the long-term. Making sense of healthcare data, which will be essential to drive this transformation, will require more open data standards and open source systems, as well as better use of existing datasets.

3. Overcome concerns of data governance

Data security and governance is still a challenge in health organisations when gaining access to patient data. As a result, £1bn of Hunt's investment is expected to be earmarked for cyber security and data consent. The rise in data captured, through wearables and Internet of Things devices, has raised concerns over providing short cuts for cyber criminals to hack into clinical environments and GP networks.

Slow and steady steps need to be made to provide interactive feedback to the patient, for them to realise the value of sharing their data. If a patient is diabetic and goes into Starbucks, they might benefit from receiving a push notification which tells them which drink, meal or snack is suitable for them to have (also helping to increase their life expectancy rate). We need to provide an obvious benefit to patients for them to agree to share their data. And as citizens begin to realise the benefits that sharing data with healthcare organisations has to offer, the concerns around data governance will begin to diminish.

4. Appoint a leader to support cultural change

At this moment in time, there is no department or champion in government taking the lead on this transformation. There needs to be a direct steer given to Trusts that this must happen. Whilst the GDS is slowly changing the cultural within departments, there needs to be more emphasis of encouraging this digital change in health.

The direction needs to come from central government - not an individual department. Government and other healthcare bodies will first and foremost need leaders who can recognise these digital opportunities, and have the powers to help deliver smarter services of the future. Healthcare organisations need to understand the most cost effective projects to support their agendas - whether that's reducing staffing costs, cutting down on A&E waiting times, or improving the services provided to the public.

The Department of Health is currently putting a plaster on its gauging wound without fixing the fundamental problem. There needs to be a direct focus on the action that needs to be taken to fix the current NHS crisis. By looking beyond small-scale, front line investments, implementing a single collaborative platform accessible to all healthcare professionals, addressing data concerns and appointing a leader to support the cultural change required, will be key to successful digital transformation in healthcare.

James Norman is UK Public Sector CIO at EMC

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