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Future-proofing the NHS – the importance of adapting to change

(Image credit: Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock)

The milestone 70th anniversary of the National Health Service, celebrated this year, has shown how much the NHS has changed since 1948. The NHS now employs more than 1.5 million people, dwarfing the 68,013 members of staff that it had on launch. It now also deals with more patients than ever before, serving over 1 million patients every 36 hours across the UK.

In addition to continuously adapting to changing personnel and patient levels, healthcare services need to ensure they stay at pace with medical and technological advances, the move towards patient self-care, and soaring patient demand for critical services. All of these factors contribute to a number of challenges that NHS leaders face when it comes to their employees, ranging from attracting new staff; retaining and developing those who already work for the NHS; and creating new roles where skill gaps are identified. In spite of this, headlines are littered with reports that the NHS is “dangerously” understaffed and underfunded, leaving NHS employees frustrated and putting patient safety at risk. Within this is an IT system that is failing – in fact, earlier this month, the NHS was named as the biggest remaining user of fax machines in the world and has now been banned from buying any more fax machines by the UK government

Computer says no

It is inevitable that technological advances will play a large role in the creation of new jobs, as well as the enablement of new remote healthcare services. NHS leaders today are well aware that if technology is not performing it can play a detrimental role when it comes to their ability to retain staff, drive efficiencies and indeed provide the level patient care the public expect.

Many hospital staff rely heavily on a virtual private network to access patient records and information, as well as clinical applications that run over the network. Resilient connectivity ensures that staff are informed and well equipped to treat patients in potentially life-threatening situations. However, in March 2018, the Guardian Healthcare Networks survey found that less than a quarter of workers thought health service IT was appropriate for the demands the NHS faces. Only 3 per cent of healthcare professionals strongly agreed that computer systems were adequate.

There needs to be a change in mindset in order to address this very serious problem. Connectivity can and will drive digital transformation within the UK’s NHS organisations, greatly improving operational efficiencies and an ability to provide state of the art care. But if the connectivity is simply not good enough, it will have the opposite effect, contributing to frustration and inefficiency among the people who rely on it to do their job. In order to get ahead of this challenge, NHS leaders need to start seeing connectivity for what it truly is: an enabler.

HSCN – the future-proof network

In November 2017, NHS Digital launched arguably the biggest and most progressive change for NHS organisations in terms of improved connectivity; the new Health and Social Care Network (HSCN). HSCN will replace the existing outdated N3 network by 2020 and promises a wealth of new connectivity options and network overlay services not previously available via N3. The new network is being implemented as part of the NHS 5-year plan to advance healthcare services through rapid technological change.

Unlike its predecessor, HSCN is about more than just connecting sites to a minimum standard. Wi-Fi, video conferencing services and cloud hosted applications can all be run over the top of HSCN to allow healthcare organisations to not just improve efficiency, but also implement services to enable growth.

However, many NHS organisations are unaware of the capabilities of HSCN, in part due to a poor N3 experience. For many healthcare professionals, the outdated N3 connection greatly impacted efficiency, making it difficult to access critical patient information and clinical applications imperative for patient care. University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, for example, found that the limited capacity provided by their N3 link led to network saturation for a significant portion of the day. This meant that from about 7:30am to 4:30pm members of staff were unable to log on to the network to access critical information essential for patient care. The migration to HSCN has seen access issues to the Clinical Radiology Information System (CRIS) significantly reduced by 60 per cent, while image sharing across the trust has drastically improved with only a couple image transfer issues occurring per month as opposed to up to 10 per month on N3. The migration has also given Plymouth NHS Trust the ability to access more cloud-hosted services such as telemedicine functionality to conduct remote consultations and hybrid mail services for patient communication, expected to save £500,000 per year.

Access to new technology and reliable connectivity will undoubtedly improve patient care. It will also improve NHS staff’s ability to provide care in already stressful situations when time is of the essence and patience can wear thin. However, the fact that many organisations had their fingers burned by N3 could now pose a barrier to their benefitting fully from the HSCN. It’s therefore important that NHS organisation leaders develop an understanding around how HSCN can be used to support business functions.

Using the network to underpin current and future business objectives

The advent of HSCN has also brought with it a competitive marketplace. Where N3 connections were provided through a single supplier, HSCN opened the provision of network connectivity to 17 HSCN-compliant suppliers. A wider range of available suppliers means that sites are now able to develop their own private networks, moving away from point-to-point connections that incur additional costs, towards virtualised networks capable of hosting additional services. The additional capability means that HSCN is not just a cheaper alternative to N3. In fact, enhanced bandwidth capabilities from accredited suppliers means the network will be future proofed to support continual business development.

HSCN will future-proof the NHS IT system, but it’s important that NHS organisations joining the network investigate its potential and adapt to the change. With IT listed as one of the biggest bug bears for an already understaffed workforce, its critical that NHS leaders employ methods that will improve efficiency and staff ability to provide quality care, especially if they are to attract and retain new employees. Connectivity and technology will drive the digital transformation of NHS organisations.

Jeremy Wastie, Regional Director South, Public Sector, MLL Telecom
Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock