At a time when few topics garner broad political consensus, the protection of our NHS is a rare unifier. Delivering improved outcomes for patients is a stated aim of all the UK’s major political parties. With underfunding, staff shortages and ever-increasing demand, healthcare organisations must look to do more with less, reducing costs, increasing efficiency and providing more effective health interventions, both proactive and reactive. Where there is less agreement is on the strategy. How can we achieve these aims?
As a technophile and technology evangelist, you might expect me to give a simple answer: technological innovation. But I firmly believe that the solution relies primarily on the heart of the NHS, which is its people. Like all tools, new tech has immense power to revolutionise most tasks. However, if a carpenter uses a lathe without proper training, or a thorough understanding of what they are trying to create, they can cause damage, injury, or waste. Similarly, if technology is designed and delivered without people at its core, it can cause frustration, confusion, or even harm. This is especially true in a clinical setting, where the difference between ‘good’ and ‘good enough’ can be life and death.
In healthcare, integration is key
Alignment with the central mission of the NHS is a vital first step in putting people at the centre of technology transformation. There must be a clear approach to technology, defined at the board level, and created in-line with the organisation’s strategy. This approach needs to be clear, consistent and easily explained, so that it can be understood and supported by people at all levels.
Collaboration is another essential ingredient. It’s no longer enough to have a highly competent, dedicated digital team, tucked away in a back office; they must be brought into the fold, to work in close communication and coordination with their colleagues. Silos are the enemy of productivity and success in most contexts, and especially when it comes to technology. By breaking down barriers and marrying up digital experts with business SMEs, policymakers, and HR teams, management can embed a digital mindset through the entire business.
Closer integration of technology and core business teams is a recipe for success employed by leading private sector companies the world over. In the age of Amazon, Uber and Netflix, patients expect digital immediacy, while still demanding high standards of privacy and data sensitivity. The recent merger of NHS Digital into NHS England is an exciting step in this direction.
A whole team journey in healthcare technology
Capitalising on this change in direction will rely on NHS leaders making the benefits clear. Anyone who has been on the phone with a call centre will be familiar with the immortal words, “Sorry - my system is a little bit slow.” Having worked at the coalface of such organisations, I know what the customer doesn’t see is the five or six screens the agent is having to load and click through – just to get to the one screen that has the information they need, that they need for 90% of the queries they receive. This is what happens when IT is designed and delivered in a silo, far away from the business, and even further from the customer.
NHS leaders must have a communication strategy that invests in delivering this message, and extols the virtues of the merger. In removing barriers between the technology experts of NHS Digital, and the clinicians and administrators of NHS E/I, our health service is removing the barriers to delivering patient services more quickly and efficiently.
Looking ahead with healthcare technology
Tech will revolutionise healthcare over the next ten years. The potential of AI, augmented reality, and wearable and consumable technology is as yet largely untapped. But the path to this future of highly effective, hyper-personalised healthcare is uncharted, likely to be fraught with challenges from massive up-front investment to data privacy concerns – and everything in between.
One thing’s for sure. Overcoming these challenges will require healthy doses of some uniquely human ingredients: empathy, compassion and care.