In his keynote address to the Healthtech Alliance earlier this year, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock called for better technology to be a strategic priority for the NHS. Hancock encouraged NHS Trusts to not only ‘fix the plumbing’, but also ‘reach for the stars’. But I don’t think forging ahead is necessarily an achievable option when it comes to digital transformation in the healthcare sector, specifically the NHS.
Historically, the NHS has been built on multiple, incrementally added, stand-alone technologies, which, due to the necessary governance of the healthcare system, have received significant time, consideration and investment from a range of stakeholders. These simply cannot and should not be replaced overnight. Whilst during the crisis, new digital services have been introduced to the NHS at a speed that would have been unthinkable previously, further digital transformation within the sector will come with its own challenges.
Over the last few months, we have seen our National Health Service pushed to the limit as a result of COVID-19. As the globe continues to battle against the virus, digital transformation has been at the forefront of conversation, as a means of not only navigating through the current climate, but coming out the other side stronger than ever before. But with the pandemic continuing to take its toll on the UK economy, future tech budgets are set to be impacted significantly. With COVID-19 expected to cost the UK as much as £298bn this financial year alone, this will come as no surprise to those operating in the industry. In fact, according to predictions from Forrester, companies in 2020 will cut tech budgets 6 per cent to 10 per cent from 2019 levels and by 10 per cent to 14 per cent from 2020 plans.
So, if an overhaul of systems simply isn’t possible, then what is the alternative? How can CIOs within the healthcare sector balance innovation with rapidly receding budgets? Rather than ‘reaching for the stars’, healthcare organisations need to begin by ‘fixing the plumbing’, one step at a time.
Overcoming digital debt
Much like financial debt, digital debt, as a result of legacy systems, is a problem the healthcare sector continues to face. Digital debt is the shortfall between what a business urgently needs and what its core systems and existing infrastructure are able to deliver. No-one is to blame for these digital arrears: IT has long focused on stability, keeping core systems and processes running, whilst the business constantly has eyes on new opportunities and offerings.
To overcome this, healthcare companies and organisations must look at how they can make simple yet effective changes to existing business processes, using technology that can be easily integrated, tested and implemented quickly. Low-code is one form of technology that is rapidly coming to the forefront when it comes to driving these changes. Due to its cloud deployment and flexible nature, low-code technology can be used to easily develop a variety of new healthcare applications that can be seamlessly integrated with existing systems.
Essentially, the way forward for digital transformation in the healthcare sector will be to work with these systems, rather than against them. Instead of ripping and replacing, healthcare organisations should instead focus on adapting. When looking at the recent launch of Falcon 9 in the US, it is interesting to note that much of the core rocket propulsion technology, dating back to the early days of space exploration, is largely unchanged. What has changed is the use of real-time data and guidance systems, to control thrust vectoring on the journey and enable the rocket to land safely again.
Rather than starting from scratch, NASA has built on existing systems, using new technologies to adapt and evolve the aircraft to make it better and stronger. In much the same way, the healthcare sector must work with the foundation of legacy infrastructure and make incremental process changes in order to achieve a bigger impact over time.
Building better healthcare
For healthcare organisations to ‘fix the plumbing’ in today’s current climate, the focus must be on automating operations such as the patient journey. Low-code technology can be used for a multitude of use-cases in this scenario – from easing call congestion on a hospital switchboard, by offering automated call backs via phone or through the website, to enabling patients to confirm, cancel or rebook appointments via an automated platform. These kinds of processes, as simple as they seem, can have a huge impact on both the patient experience and in freeing up hospital workers to focus on higher-value tasks.
Over the last couple of months, many healthcare trusts have implemented low-code processes in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. One use-case is NHS Dumfries and Galloway, which, without needing any changes to existing systems, was able to deliver multichannel employee and patient journeys and processes. Using low-code technology, the trust was able to launch an automated results messaging platform within two weeks, to update staff and patients on test outcomes, quickly and securely. This process is reducing the number of calls to frontline staff, who are being freed up to focus on providing treatment and patient care.
Reducing the need for technical skills
Budgetary constraints remain prevalent in healthcare organisations, during current economic uncertainty, whilst digital skills – or the lack thereof – remain a big barrier to digital change. Whilst most trusts now report having board-level representation for their digital transformation agenda, stakeholders still feel there is a shortage of digital and data skills. Here, low-code technology can rapidly help companies overcome shortages in a range of digital skills, by providing tools that can be used by anyone, no matter their level of technical ability. By enabling people to quickly prototype new processes and workflows without any need for specialised technical skills, businesses can innovate and implement significant change without having to rely on highly trained or specially-skilled developers.
By giving NHS trusts and healthcare organisations the ability to build applications quickly and easily, not only will they be able to act with agility when responding to the ongoing ramifications of COVID-19, but also continue to drive digital transformation beyond the crisis. Making small changes to keep up with increasingly complex patient needs and growing patient numbers will help to propel the NHS into the digital age. In this way, low-code technology can play a crucial role in building a better healthcare system for everyone.
Richard Farrell, Chief Innovation Officer, Netcall