Health December 19, 2019
Taking the digital angle

By Francesco Tamilia - Accountable Care Journal

In healthcare, embracing digital transformation is easier said than done.

Digital transformation is now one of the key tenets of NHS progression. That is according to the NHS Long Term Plan (LTP). Yet for all its digital ambition, and almost a year after its publication, the LTP has failed to generate any real productivity gain for the healthcare sector.

“Automation and digitisation in the last 40 years have led to a thousand-fold increase in efficiency in some industries,” said Dr Simon Eccles, Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care at NHSX. Dr Eccles laments the absence of similar progress in healthcare.

NHSX is a new joint unit within the NHS, tasked with leading the digital transformation of the health service and delivering upon the Government’s tech vision. As CCIO of this new organisation, in addition to still practising as an emergency clinician, Dr Eccles is well aware of the importance of turning this vision into reality and understands the challenges of doing so.

Dr Eccles was leading a discussion at the PPP annual conference on How to operationalise digital change in the NHS – lessons from around the globe. While being realistic about the limits of NHS digital transformation, Dr Eccles insisted that the NHS could be fully digitised by 2024. This is thanks to an abundance of ever more sophisticated technologies coming to market.

Systemic change required

An enormous amount of money has been spent on digitally transforming health services  – £40 billion was spent globally in 2015. In Dr Eccles’ mind, however, the proof will be in the pudding, and health outcomes have not improved as a direct result of this investment. Or, at least, “we have not benefited to the degree that we should have. ”  

“We have let technology be the driver of reform, rather than allowing system change to be the driver. ”

- Jason Helgerson, Founder, Helgerson Solutions Group.

Perhaps the ambition and drivers of this investment have been misguided, thereby hindering progress? Jason Helgerson, founder of Helgerson Solutions Group, certainly believes the “aim of our investment” has been wrong. Jason used his time on the panel to make the point that “we have let technology be the driver of reform, rather than allowing system change to be the driver and technology the enabler. ”

“If we really want to capture the full benefits of the new technological advances that are coming, and make sure they are driving improvements in health and wellbeing, then we have to think differently,” said Jason. Most importantly, he added, “we need to think across the entire system. Health must never be considered in isolation; social care should always play a prominent role in our strategic thinking. ”

Allowing proper access to data

Most experts in the sector agree that the success of our digital health strategies rests upon our ability to use data. This will define the extent to which we are able to deliver benefits for entire populations.

This was the sentiment stressed by Simon Swift, Managing Director of Methods Analytics. Mr Swift said that he felt “intensely frustrated” by the lack of real population health analytics currently in use. “There are lots of people talking about it. Lots of people are designing organisation target operating models,” he said, “but nobody is actually doing it. ”

In order to manage population health properly, he says, health providers will need access to primary care data, second account data, community data, mental health data, social care, housing and education data. Mr Swift went on to outline how harnessing each of these data sets would facilitate the rapid identification of risk groups within populations. “Ultimately, using data in this way will increase understanding of how to design services to improve health outcomes of entire populations. ”

Using innovative technology

As Dr Eccles alluded to this in his address, there is in an increasing number of sophisticated digital products coming into the health sector market. Crucial to turning the digital agenda from vision to reality will be locating and using these innovations.

In urgent and primary care, DoctorLink provides an excellent example of a game-changing solution. An online consultation tool, DoctorLink is used to check symptoms prior to GP appointments. The app uses a clinically approved set of algorithms that will provide a disposition, directing patients to an appropriate level of care.

“We're working on this with some of the large trusts in England to try to give them the ability to digitise their front door,” said Sami Nur, Director of Special Projects at DoctorLink. Mr Nur explained how DoctorLink works closely with the NHS App team and NHSX to integrate its solution into the NHS. Mr Nur also touched upon the key ambition of the company, stating that: “Although our solution is initially created for, and procured through, primary care, we want to make sure that we're offering the same services to urgent and secondary care too. ”

Implementing innovative technologies across the sector, keeping track and studying the measurement of our investments and access to data are some key takeaways of the panel discussion. If fully implemented, they can speed up the digitisation of the NHS, which will drastically increase efficiency across the health service.

Calls to action to use digital technology across the NHS

  • Reduce the burden on staff by removing blockages to inputing and accessing data.
  • Use technology to empower citizens to care for themselves better, to reduce the knowledge asymmetry between a clinical workforce and the citizens themselves.
  • Improve the digital literacy of the health and care workforce.
  • Increase the openness of data from across the system, particularly in primary care.

Watch the full session 

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