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We have talked for years about how digital technology creates the opportunity to reshape healthcare. From improved communication linked to faster and more accurate diagnosis, treatment and discharge, to harnessing data to allow for more personalised, timely and effective care and enhanced patient flow, and digitising traditional paper-based, manual processes to give back time to care; the potential benefits are evident to everyone engaged in any way with our health service.
Realising these benefits has often been slow and frustrating; largely a result of systemic lethargy in the face of challenges that require new ways of thinking and new ways of working. Yet, the experiences of the last months have shown what is possible.
Driven by necessity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS demonstrated unprecedented capacity to respond to the urgent need to support and protect vulnerable patients and frontline staff.
From Trusts utilising digital tools to predict PPE numbers for staff, to those applying analytics to digitally track potential and positive Coronavirus infections of patients during the pandemic, and those who set up virtual training sessions to upskill clinical staff to be able to work on COVID-19 wards, rapid transformation at every level of the acute setting. Meanwhile, within the community and primary care, technology became relied upon to ensure that non-acute patients could still attend crucial doctors and health appointments, albeit virtually.
However, as Deb Sutton and Dan Wadsworth, TeleTracking UK, argue, while the move to a more digitally-enabled NHS is both a positive and welcomed step forward – it is the engagement and training of frontline workers and, importantly, their empowerment to make changes from bottom-up, that is key to achieving the full benefits of digital solutions.
Digital transformation sounds overwhelming; when there is so much to change, it is hard to know where to begin. It is perhaps, therefore, little wonder that delay has not been the result of rational choice. Nonetheless, it is a source of frustration for many that the NHS, a pioneer of universal healthcare, has been slow to adopt and apply digital technology and that – where it has been adopted, it hasn’t always delivered the expected benefits.
In many cases, this is because making a technology investment at an organisational level, with a deployment or implementation roadmap that doesn’t understand or address the challenges and needs of those in the frontline, won’t make enough of a difference. True digital transformation needs support from people who have worked within, and understand, those frontline departments along with support from C-level hospital executives to truly adopt a more digitally inclusive culture.
Indeed, the changes that were seen during the height of the pandemic were mostly a result of frontline workers having the power to make decisions for local improvements: most were small individual changes that when combined, together made a big impact.