Digital Implementation, News

Why healthtech providers to the NHS have a responsibility to design interoperable solutions


Boosting access to innovative technology has never been more important for the NHS. But providers have a duty to ensure interoperability is at the core of all solutions, writes Dr Anas Nader.

With the NHS facing increasing challenges, from extensive waiting lists to rising staff burn-out, boosting access to innovative technology across the industry is becoming a growing priority. The Health Secretary has promised to ringfence funding for health tech, highlighting it as a key investment for the future of the health service; and there is no shortage of emerging tech offering to step to the fore and build new solutions.

Many are already shaping up to deliver on this promise – from remote patient monitoring to increased surgical accuracy. But there is one thing that must not be overlooked: if these solutions are to have a long-term tangible impact, and support more joined-up care delivery across new integrated care systems (ICSs), they must be designed with interoperability in mind.

An interoperable solution is one that can connect with other systems, allowing for information to be easily and safely shared without the need for manual intervention. With hundreds of digital systems in use across the NHS – including databases such as the Electronic Staff Record –  new tech must be able to ‘speak to’ these and share information directly if it is to have a viable long-term benefit. This is especially vital for facilitating cross-service collaboration within ICSs, enabling systems at different organisations to effectively and securely send information to each other.

For this reason, NHS England has identified interoperability as a key area of focus, to help boost the capabilities of ICSs, which were set up to drive the shift towards more joined-up care. This is a goal echoed by other recent reports, including the Hewitt Review, which highlights the importance of joined-up care and the effective interchange of information across organisational boundaries.

While new healthtech innovations are often built with the best of intentions, tech that cannot be successfully used in conjunction with other systems can inhibit this much-needed collaboration. Whether that’s by creating silos which slow down communication or increasing the admin burden on clinicians by requiring data to be manually re-entered; without interoperability, new technology can become difficult to use, and ultimately risks being abandoned by the clinicians it was built to support.

Indeed, a lack of interoperability between systems has been flagged as an ongoing problem in the NHS, with 76 per cent of doctors viewing this as a ‘significant barrier’ to digital transformation. According to the BMA, 13.5 million working hours are lost in England each year as a result of fragmented tech and IT systems.

To create a successful product that can make real change in the NHS, and facilitate genuine ICS-wide collaboration, healthtech companies must take into account the complex ecosystem of healthcare IT systems within the NHS. Providers have a responsibility to build in a way that ensures our solutions deliver genuine interoperability as standard.

How healthtech providers can deliver on interoperability

The biggest mistake that health innovators building tech for the NHS can make when approaching interoperability is viewing their product and the NHS as completely separate entities. Rather than being built for and with the NHS, solutions are often built in isolation, and then have to be retrofitted to meet the needs of each ICS. This is a surefire way to create a tech solution that is inherently incompatible with other NHS systems. To avoid this, companies must build in a way that prioritises interoperability from day one, with a close appreciation for the other systems tech must work alongside.

In the same vein, innovators must ensure their solution can be adapted to the many different healthcare contexts in which it could be used across each ICS. It may need to communicate with systems in primary care, hospitals, outpatient settings, or community and mental health care services. Ensuring full interoperability will allow for greater flexibility and mean it can be successfully adopted in different settings across ICSs, facilitating effective cross-service collaboration as a result.

Interoperability is not a ‘one and done’ exercise. Within systems as complex as the NHS, tech solutions must be flexible and able to continually evolve to meet the changing needs of the services using them. Healthtech companies should provide ongoing technical support and remain on-hand post-implementation to ensure that the solution continues to be a success. Parachuting in tech without this continued support may simply place a shelf life on the solution, especially if it is unable to integrate with future systems that are brought in across the ICS.

If technology is to fulfil the needs of the NHS’s staff and patients, interoperability must be prioritised at every step. This is vital for ensuring that the solution helps, rather than hinders, the healthcare service and offers a long-term solution which enables effective collaboration within the ICSs using it.

A failure to design interoperable software will result not only in an increased burden for NHS staff, but a lack of adoption and success. It’s a two-way street: working in partnership with the NHS to ensure systems are able to embrace new technologies is key. But innovators must actively take up the charge to prioritise interoperability and build solutions equipped to effectively support more ICS-wide, joined-up care.

Dr Anas Nader is the Co-founder and CEO of Patchwork Health: a digital solution that connects NHS organisations to a growing number of healthcare workers, reducing the reliance on locum agencies and improving the experience of flexible working in the NHS.