How technology can help save the NHS

With the challenge of a vast, overburdened workforce, and unprecedented financial strain, improvements to the NHS’ technological framework are essential.

As the NHS crisis deepens, fracturing opinion on how it can be solved, most agree that better use of technology and data has the power to improve health, and transform the quality and efficiency of our health and social care system.

With the challenge of a vast, overburdened workforce, and unprecedented financial strain, improvements to the NHS’ technological framework are essential. However, there is a monumental task to bring the health sector up to speed.

While retail, hospitality, banking, education and many other sectors have been transformed and streamlined by technology in the last decade, the consumer experience of healthcare in the UK is languishing in the pre-Internet era.

To most people, fax machines are considered museum pieces, yet the NHS reportedly remains the largest consumer of fax paper in the world. Electronic prescriptions are only just being rolled out by many GP surgeries, and only two per cent of adults use the web to book doctor appointments.

Despite an overall failing to use technology to its full potential, there are success stories. For instance, more than 96 per cent of GPs have installed digital clinical record systems; the NHS Choices website gets 40 million visits a month; and The Spine, the NHS system for extracting, collecting, storing and communicating data, handles over 200 million interactions a month.

New national focus

Thankfully, there’s an acceptance that much more can be done and that change is needed, fast. Digital technology is at the heart of the NHS Five Year Forward View, a plan that sets out a vision for creating a sustainable and affordable health service by 2020.

The new national focus will be on developing key systems that enable different parts of the health service to talk to one another and work together successfully. The NHS is also creating a range of health apps to help patients to take control of their own health and care. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also pledged that all NHS buildings will offer free WiFi as part of the NHS’ bid to become digital and paperless.

All this sounds really positive and I welcome these moves. From a personal point of view, as an advocate of WiFi technology and location analytics, I’m excited by the role that this technology could play in helping the NHS to meet these goals.

When the NHS makes free WiFi available in hospitals, there will be potential to transform them into intelligent spaces, delivering dramatic improvements to patient care and efficiency. Straight away, patients and visitors benefit from being able to connect with the outside world. I am a firm believer that, for patients stuck in hospital for long periods, staying in touch with friends and family can have a positive impact on wellbeing. Given that there are many studies to support a link between mental wellbeing and recovery times, this could help free up hospital beds.

In addition, WiFi could make processes much leaner. For instance, in the future we envisage that outpatients will be able to login to WiFi on arrival, check-in online and look-up appointment information. When they leave the building, it will be possible for healthcare providers to instantly email or SMS message them to ask them for feedback on their patient experience.

Living up to the potential

The WiFi infrastructure combined with location analytics could also give healthcare providers a glimpse at which spaces within their buildings are in use and how long people stay in a given area. With an accurate picture of dwell times in waiting rooms and accident and emergency departments, healthcare providers can develop strategies to eliminate bottlenecks. 

Location tools could also facilitate Wayfinding, which would be a great asset to patients, visitors and locums who are unfamiliar with the space. When they login to WiFi, Wayfinding could allow them to use maps to direct them to a specific location. Being able to move confidently around the building reduces anxiety, and prevents them getting lost or being late for appointments.

Similarly, this technology could make it easier to keep tabs on where equipment is within the building. Asset-tracking, using sensors placed on equipment such as wheelchairs and beds, would ensure that they remain in designated areas. This simple measure would reduce the time spent by staff locating equipment, and prevent funds being wasted on replacing lost items.

As pressure on hospitals shows no sign of abating, health and social care in the home is another focus of the NHS’ digital revolution. Technology can do much to improve the lives of older people and their carers -- wearables, telecare, telehealth, mobile phones, apps and televideo consultations are among the solutions that offer great potential.

It’s clear that so much can be done, but putting all of the possible solutions into a secure, cohesive and affordable plan is the biggest challenge. For patients and health care workers’ sake, I hope the proposed technological transformation of the NHS lives up to its potential, meets its deadline and helps ensure the survival of this incredible asset to the UK.

Gavin Wheeldon, CEO, Purple
Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock