Like many of you, I am a massive fan of the NHS. It is certainly the finest public health service in the world, despite the often too acerbic UK press, and the political football that is continuously played with its future.
The NHS is undeniably in crisis and it’s future is a key issue.
It’s practitioners are dedicated, hard working and more often than not, extremely hard pressed to deliver what is essentially still a world-class service, under the most trying of circumstances.
Facing a humanitarian crisis
However, the NHS is undeniably in crisis and it’s future is a key issue in the general election campaign. Stories litter the headlines daily about overcrowding in hospitals, operations being postponed, doctors and support staff not coping, long waits at A&E and emergency units failing to meet targets. The Royal College of Physicians has stated that crucial services are ‘struggling or failing to cope’ and the Red Cross has stated that the NHS is facing a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
If that was not bad enough, last week, the NHS’ creaking IT systems fell victim to a global ransomware attack. Although the NHS was not specifically targeted by the ransomware dubbed ‘WannaCry’, the fact that it relied on old, unsupported software, such as WindowsXP, that had not received publicly available security updates for several years, was largely to blame.
Only going to get worse
I fear the situation can only deteriorate. Cost pressures are ongoing and are only going to get worse. There is an alarmingly low number of trusts or hospitals that are actually trading profitably. There are multiple layers of regulation and compliance, which although similar to each other, have very different agendas. And amid all of this, they are plagued with an IT infrastructure that mixes modern with archaic and links them all together via a national network.
But, in light of last week’s events, plus manifesto promises, the NHS must be due major improvements right?
A light at the end of the tunnel
Ironically, last week’s cyber attack and a renewed vigour to tackle its ongoing IT issues, could end up being the NHS’ saviour. As it struggles with budget pressures, the strikes and disputes that naturally follow, and a population that is growing older, I passionately believe that digital transformation offers the NHS a light at the end of the tunnel.
The natural reaction to any growing financial crisis is to root out inefficiencies and look for ways to streamline processes, boost operations, lower costs, and generally improve the way things are run. Digital needs to be at the core of any policy discussion, given the plethora of benefits it brings, including improved IT security, without increasing the burden on already overstretched personnel.
There will always be resistance to the digitisation of any large and important organisation. The inherent bureaucracy and aversion to risk associated with massive changes is a factor. But the risks of not making changes are also now abundantly clear. There is also resistance arising from the fear that it will result in less interaction with doctors or widespread automation. But this isn’t the point. As those NHS trusts that have taken the leap have found, digital transformation ultimately frees up time for staff and improves patient care.
So let’s take a look at how digital transformation can benefit the NHS. It increases productivity to better balance the supply and demand for services. It helps maximise return on technology investments. It improves security by demanding better commercial arrangements with vendors. It puts the power in the hands of the consumer, and allows them to take greater control of their healthcare choices through digital and mobile technologies. It brings greater accountability for healthcare spending, and improved treatment and clinical care. And it helps minimise waste and standardises best practices.
Real-time patient feedback would be possible too. Providing meaningful feedback to users and providers alike, would improve patient choice and enable an early warning system for providers. Finally, and probably most importantly, it will give a single view of the patient, through electronic records, which will in turn cut bureaucracy, prevent mistakes and ultimately save millions of pounds.
A need to change behaviour
But to take advantage of digital transformation, the NHS trusts need to change behaviour. The Cabinet Office and GDS put an end to long-term IT contracts that perpetually failed to deliver and only ended up costing the Government or in this case, the NHS, more than it ever bargained for. Despite that, there are still recent examples of NHS trusts awarding large systems integrators ten-year deals to deliver their IT services? And in fact, done it in a way that has publicly and openly failed elsewhere.
Now, it is possible that I don’t have all the facts. I assume that there must be something that we are all unaware of that will result in a better outcome this time? I hope so. Because with the pressure the NHS is under, they simply can’t afford any more expensive IT failures.
Time to wake up
The NHS needs to wake up. Doing the same thing over and over when it is not working, is nothing but lunacy. This will result in trusts forking out massive sums of money without seeing the changes they so desperately need, or reaping any benefits. The NHS does not need IT transformation using a big bang, long contract approach. This isn’t addressing the real issues, no matter how much lipstick they put on the pig.
The only result will be more of the same large scale failure — a repetitive, redundant and expensive cycle that wastes time and money. What the NHS needs now is an iterative, continuous, transformative approach, which improves productivity by focusing on the needs of patients and health workers, and delivers best in class solutions which sit on an agile, integrated and secure infrastructure.
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