How the NHS can deliver the benefits of digital healthcare

In January 2013, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, set the NHS the ambitious target of ‘going paperless’ within five years to save billions, improve services and help meet the challenges of an ageing population. He said that patients should have compatible digital records that allow their health data to follow them around the health and social care system – meaning that, in the vast majority of cases, when a patient needs a GP, hospital or care at home, the professionals responsible for providing that care can see their history at the touch of a button.

The Health Secretary’s plans received a further boost earlier this year, when an extra £4 billion was set aside for areas such as electronic records and online appointments prescriptions and consultations. It is little surprise, then, that 64 per cent of NHS IT leaders are now engaging in the procurement or roll-out of electronic health records.

Despite the scale of investment, however, the transition from paper to paperless is not without its challenges. So, what are the crucial steps that healthcare trusts must take now, in order to prepare for the reality of a future that’s digital by default?

Formulating the right strategy

Benjamin Franklin once said that, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” No truer words have been spoken – especially for the NHS trusts currently grappling with the tall order of delivering digital records for millions of patients. It is therefore essential that new technologies, services and ways of managing patient information are rolled-out with a long-term, holistic strategy in mind.

Indeed, investing in large scale technological projects will only be beneficial when healthcare trusts carefully consider how these new solutions can be implemented into existing infrastructure and processes. Due to the siloed formation of the NHS, this can often be a challenging undertaking as responsibilities lie in different jurisdictions – both culturally, as NHS trusts often operate independently from one another, and geographically in terms of where patients are based. As integrated patient care develops, improvements must be made to the ease and safety of sharing data between services.

By devising new strategies from the outset, which aim to streamline processes before new technologies are even considered, the NHS is far more likely to make sound investments that will ultimately benefit patients and staff.

Getting tougher on data security

Data security in particular has become an issue of national concern in recent times - brought to the public’s attention by a number of high-profile data breaches. Just a few months ago, the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust was handed a £180,000 fine after a sexual health facility accidentally leaked the personal details of 780 HIV clinic attendees by email, while the Information Commissioner’s Office has claimed that the health sector accounts for nearly half of all reported data breaches in the UK.

In response, last month the Care Quality Commission published the findings of its review into patient data and IT systems in the NHS. The review found that although the use of technologies for recording and storing patient information is growing, there is a risk that more serious, large-scale data losses could occur if the correct safeguards are not put in place around them.

Part of the problem is that often, data security systems and protocols are not designed around the needs of frontline staff – and this is particularly pronounced in time-sensitive, emergency medicine settings. This leads staff to develop potentially insecure workarounds in an attempt to deliver high quality, timely care to patients.

It is therefore crucial that IT decision makers take time to listen to the unique challenges faced by staff before pushing ahead with any new digital solutions, ensuring that these are designed with the care givers, and ultimately the patient, in mind.   

Information, tools and training

An organisation is nothing without its people…and investment in technology is nothing if staff don’t know how to use it. The Care Quality Commission report validates this view, and found that while there was evident and widespread commitment to new paperless formats, staff at all levels faced significant challenges in translating their commitment into reliable practice. Moreover, the quality of staff training on data security was varied at all levels, right up to the Senior Information Risk Owners (SIROs).

The sheer size, scale and organisational structure of the NHS means that training all staff in new and improved technologies is no mean feat. However, it is clear that this is an absolutely essential undertaking if we are to realise the dream of personalised healthcare that’s digitally-driven.

The NHS must therefore seek to work with organisations that support it during this period of organisational change, forming an integral part of the trust as it makes the transition to new technological solutions. Indeed, partners must be prepared for a long-term collaborative project that aims to equip all staff with the right information, tools, training and support to allow them to do their jobs effectively – while still being able to meet their responsibilities for managing digital patient records securely.

Looking ahead with a clear vision

The government’s pledge to deliver a digital healthcare system is well-intentioned, but policy makers must be mindful of the disparate nature of the NHS. Each NHS trust operates in its own unique way, with different processes, targets and internal policies in place. A ‘one size fits all’ approach simply won’t result in the positive change that the government, and indeed IT decision makers within healthcare, are looking for.

It is only by tackling these individual and varied frontline challenges that effective digital strategies can be properly implemented. With focused investment decisions, supported by staff education, today’s NHS can embrace the new technologies that will pave the way for improved services and patient care for years to come.

Tony Pickering, professional services director, Ricoh UK