Hospital bed in corridor

NHS must embrace technology or fall on its knees

By: Eva Quigley, Senior Reporter at The Information Daily
Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 09:29 GMT Jump to Comments

In a time of gut wrenching public sector savings, the National Health Service (NHS) must embrace technology or fall on its knees.

At the Olympian opening ceremony, the NHS was a key celebration of all that is British. But as funds are cut, not surprisingly, quality of care has become affected. And this means the face of the National Health Service has become damaged. With a lack of money, staff and resources, challenges like an aging population and an increase in elderly care, healthcare professionals must use the full force of technology to get them through this difficult time.

A “fundamental cultural change” must happen within the NHS according to Francis QC following the Mid Staffordshire scandal. But instead, what about a revolution within the NHS, a revolution where all health professionals embrace technology, use it to empower their work, save money and in the long term provide better care? Now there's a thought. 

The government have already put plans forward to drive digital health. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt aims for a 'paperless NHS' by 2018, and every patient to have access to an online medical record by 2015. It is claimed this will save £5 billion a year, improve patient care and save lives. 

But whilst government support and funding is very welcome, it is up to the health professionals, managers and IT experts to dig deep and discover the potential of a digital health system.

Following the diaster of the top down centralised £12 billion National Health Programme for IT, hopes of ever having an IT system in place to manage electronic health records were dashed. In fact, hopes for an NHS with any kind of digital integration were dashed.

But this year something had changed. When interviewing key players in health informatics at HC2013 in Birmingham, I found the atmosphere to be upbeat, positive and extremely hopeful for the future of healthcare.

Iain Carpenter, Associate Director for the Health Informatics Unit at the Royal College of Physicians, told me a digitally integrated healthcare system will improve patient care dramatically.

"People tend to think of technology as that thing in the backroom which is driven by technical geeks who understand computers and coding," he said. 

But the world we are getting into has technology everywhere, Carpenter explained. "A world where patients can access their records easily, are able to correct what’s wrong, are able to tell the doctors what worked and what didn’t work for them, and use evidence based decision making."

The next few generations growing up will integrate technology into their work without even thinking about it, as they do now in their every day lives. But no one can afford to wait for them. Now is the time to create a health system where technology is intrinsic to daily medical tasks.

As Tom Whicher, founder of Dr Doctor explained: "Technology has so much potential to not just improve outcomes but also make the whole experience nicer for patients."

“By using technology we can engage the young diabetic who is bored of going to the hospital and is always too busy, talk to them on their terms and through their smart phone,” he said.

Not only can the integration of technology in the NHS prevent patient risk, improve quality of care, save money, and ensure the whole experience for a patient is easier and "nicer," but through collaborative thinking, the NHS can become a world class health system abroad.

If we can get IT and information systems working better, supporting clinicians, and develop more innovation, we can drive up quality in the health service, Darren McKenna, Director of Informatics at Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Mental Health Trust agreed.

Professor Terry Young of Healthcare Systems at Brunel University, London also agreed: “A better organised service shouldn’t just mean patients get a better smoother ride, or that doctors, nurses, or managers have better control of their lives and feel more fulfilled in those lives, it should also mean something for the country,” he said.

“We spend about £100 billion a year on our health service, I think it is right that we should expect some kind of economic stimulus come from that, as well as keeping us well.”

Andrea Spyropoulos, President of the Royal College of Nursing, perhaps more cautiously, said she believed that technology can be a "supportive network," but can “never be a substitute for people.”

Importantly, she said, technology needs to be understood in order for it to be effective. Thus, "best practice needs to be examined, evidence based decision making must be listened to and communciation within health departments and professionals must be prioritised."

Technology "is very complex and it puts people off because it takes time away from the patient. But there's a balance and I think we are probably reaching a time where we can get that balance right," Spyropoulos said.

Broadcaster Nick Ross and HC2013 Chairman told me that in order for the NHS to tackle its biggest challenges, it must work “seamlessly” with technology. "Informatics is so key to the NHS, it is driving the NHS, and if it isn’t, it ought to be in the driving seat," he said.

The NHS desperately needs a much more collaborative and open approach to technology. Otherwise the next time Britain hosts the Olympics, we won't be seeing nurses proudly dancing on the stage, but instead singing HS2 conductors, prancing premiership footballers or even harmonious university lecturers...

It will be no easy journey, but conferences like HC2013 are taking healthcare one step in the right direction. Government support and funding is necessary, but it will be the willingness and openness of health and IT professionals to integrate their knowledge, connect their understanding and work together, that will create a public service that puts patient care at its very heart, and make the NHS something we can be truly proud of.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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