Posted 20th November 2020
Whilst digitalisation has been an NHS target since the early 2000s, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the immediate and real need for an effective digital strategy in British public healthcare. Despite initial deadlines to go paperless by 2020, only one in ten NHS trusts have achieved full digitalisation, with levels of digital competence varying across the remaining 88% of trusts. There’s a lot to be gained from embracing digitalisation in healthcare, particularly for the NHS, which finds itself under increasing pressure to improve operational efficiency and reduce spending. As technology develops and becomes increasingly sophisticated, the healthcare sector can utilise this ‘healthtech’ to provide higher quality, more efficient processes for both NHS employees and patients alike, ensuring the NHS is equipped to survive and thrive amidst an increasing, aging population. So how can digitalisation power the healthcare sector?
During the coronavirus pandemic, GP consultations went virtual, taking place either over video or phone. The drastic reduction of face-to-face consultations helped to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between patients and healthcare workers. Indeed, before coronavirus, only 5% of GP surgeries were able to offer virtual consultations, compared to a current 88%. Platforms such as Doctorlink, which provides video consultations and online triage services, saw a 292% increase during the first nation-wide lockdown, as fears of COVID-19 transmission limited the number of in-person GP appointments.
Whilst there’s some concerns about the impact of virtual consultations on the older generations and those without the necessary tech and connectivity, integrating video and telephone consultations into the patient journey could prove an effective way of dealing with non-urgent illness, whilst addressing the increasing demand for appointments. As part of the NHS Long Term PLAN 2024, all patients will be given the option for ‘digital-first’ primary care, whether that’s a telephone or online consultation. Approximately 307 million GP consultations take place each year but increasing demand can sometimes leave service-users waiting weeks for an appointment. It’s thought that online consultations could help increase efficiency, offering greater flexibility and convenience for both GPs and patients, especially for minor ailments or non-urgent illnesses. Indeed, virtual consultations have the potential to reduce in-person GP appointments by a third, saving over £1 billion a year in the process.
Whilst many NHS trusts adopted electronic health records (EHR) back in 2002, a 2019 study found that a quarter of acute hospital trusts were still using paper records. Digitising paper records makes searching and cross-referencing easier, allowing healthcare professionals to find specific medical information as required. Yet the system still has its drawbacks and limitations, particularly when it comes to integration and ‘interoperability’, the ability of computer systems or software to exchange information and ‘communicate’ with each other. Indeed, only 54% of trusts reported that staff can rely on digital records to find the information they need when they need it, as patient data can be stored across several different systems with minimal co-ordination. NHS Digital are currently tasked with improving system integration and interoperability and have recently signed a deal with DXC Technology and Australia’s national science agency CSIRO to improve data sharing and integrated care across healthcare organisations.
When properly invested in and maintained, electronic health records can help improve efficiency and patient experience. With patient data and history all centralised in one portal, clinicians have access to all the information they need to make important medical decisions. It can also reduce the need for patients to re-explain symptoms or medical history when they change doctors or are referred to clinical specialists, improving overall user experience.
As part of the NHS’s goal to go paperless, electronic prescriptions are becoming standard across GP surgeries and NHS trusts. As prescriptions are sent directly from the doctor to the patient’s chosen pharmacy, e-prescriptions cut out the middleman, and eliminate the need for a paper-based prescription. This is particularly useful for patients who require repeat prescriptions, as they can simply collect their medication from the pharmacy when needed, without having to arrange it themselves and go back and forth between the GP and the pharmacy. Embracing e-prescriptions is yet another way of bringing the NHS into the 21st century and harnessing technology to improve efficiency, free up time and save money on paper-based processes. It also makes life easier for patients, who are less involved in the processes thanks to electronic automation.
The development of secure electronic signatures has enabled prescriptions to go paperless. With the ability to electronically sign e-prescriptions, healthcare professionals can easily prescribe medication and send prescriptions directly to the pharmacy-without having to print a paper document first.
While this is not currently widely available via the NHS, there is much excitement around the future potential of wearable and ‘smart’ technology, particularly when it comes to monitoring and managing long-term conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy. In 2019, thousands of people at risk of diabetes were given wearable technology to help them monitor exercise levels as part of the Diabetes Prevention Programme. This was supplemented with access to online health coaches and smartphone apps to aid dieting and exercise and proved to be a success; participants who completed the programme lost an average of seven and a half pounds. The programme demonstrates how technology can be used to drive preventative healthcare, equipping patients with the tools and information they need to manage and monitor their own health. With type two diabetes costing the NHS approximately £6bn each year, a digital-first preventative programme could reduce costs in the long term and help create a healthier population.
Similar programmes are in the pipeline to support those with epilepsy. Combining wearable technology with a smartphone app allows users to record seizures and take note of lifestyle events or missed medication, helping them to gain a deeper understanding of their condition and any potential triggers. Digital technology could also be used to help those with asthma, with a ‘smart inhaler’ currently being tested for potential use in the NHS. With the ability to detect inhaler use and transmit data to a smartphone app, they can help collect personalised information about individual asthma conditions. Data is power and knowing as much as possible about a condition, its triggers and preventative measures, empowers users to make the best decisions about their health.
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