Modernisation must breathe life back into the NHS

Richard Whomes, director of sales engineering from Rocket Software, argues that it’s time for a full IT health check.

The country’s beleaguered health service is in a bad way. While the Care Quality Commission has declared that the standard of health and social care services across the UK has been maintained, it has also acknowledged the increasingly complex demand being placed on the NHS in the form of an ageing population. With more people expected to live in poorer health for longer, the need to implement new technology to cope with the added strain on our stretched healthcare services is more important than ever. While it may fall short of the £4 billion emergency injection called for by NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens, the new pledge by the UK government to commit an additional £3.75 billion for the NHS as part of the autumn Budget is encouraging. But it’s crucial to ensure that this funding is spent in a way that will deliver real changes in the patient care.

So, as the NHS approaches its 70th birthday in 2018, where can digital investment in existing technology systems make a real difference to the quality of services for people across the UK?

Building a better big data strategy
In the face of budget restrictions, any new investments in technolohy must be justified by significant gains in efficiency and, ultimately, resulting benefits for patients. The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) – an organisation tasked with providing support services to the NHS and helping to improve processes – has ambitions to deliver £1 billion in savings by December 2018. For this to happen, and for these funds to be reinvested in critical frontline patient services, health services across the country need to do more with their vast swathes of patient and care data.

Using application programming interfaces (APIs) to gain access to this data means that public health services, whether that be a pharmacy, dentist or hospital, can create patient-facing apps to streamline the assessment and treatment process. In fact, the need for APIs is so strong that NHS Digital has committed to opening an API lab by the end of 2017 to facilitate data sharing among healthcare organisations, both public and private.

Mobilising the healthcare workforce
While there are positive signs that the NHS is slowly but surely looking to adopt new software solutions, its current reliance on out-dated technology is a serious impediment to realising a digital-first approach to services. For example, a recent study by CommonTime showed that the NHS continues to spend more than £6 million each year on pagers. These devices come with worrisome limitations, such as the inability to support two-way communication and a lack of traceability for calls being made. The same report claims that the NHS could cut costs by more than £2.7 million, simply by shifting away from the use of pagers.

To provide better quality of care, while also streamlining access to patient information, the NHS must look to more efficient mobile working solutions. Thanks to the new commitment to API technology announced by NHS Digital (the IT arm of the NHS), the organisation is poised to bring its data access strategy into the 21st century. Using APIs as a gateway to crucial data, developers can build new mobile working applications, which will allow healthcare staff – from doctors to aged care workers – to do away with the old-school approaches to sharing information; gone will be the days of hand-delivering patient records from one department to another, or sending work schedules and shift timetables via post.

Ramping up cyber security
A conversation about modernising technology and the NHS would not be complete without addressing the serious cyber security challenges that have been faced in 2017. TheWannaCry attack that compromised the IT systems of health services across the UK was a sharp wake up call for those in charge of securing patient data, and demonstrated that the simplest of errors can lead to devastating breaches. Without robust data security in place across the healthcare system, the possibility for modernisation and new digital solutions will continue to hit a roadblock.

90 per cent of NHS IT managers say that making cyber security a priority is the only way to allow for digitisation of patient care. Boosting information security would give patients more trust in their country’s health services, but it could also save the NHS £15 million each year. In fact, the new measure to bolster the organisation’s data security is a fresh £20 million injection for the NHS to create a dedicated cyber security centre. Through this, ethical ‘white-hat’ hackers will be monitoring and probing the organisation’s defences for weaknesses. With this in place, the ability to digitally transform the NHS is certainly one step closer.

The modern world of healthcare in the UK
The journey to full IT modernisation for the NHS will be a long one. Navigating the complex landscape of patient data, ageing technology and cyber security requires a comprehensive understanding of what needs to change, and which software tools can be used. With new funding on the horizon thanks to the latest budget announcement, it is time for IT decision makers to map out their technology plan now, to ensure our healthcare system can cope with the demands of the future.

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