What role will technology play in helping the NHS to recover?

I recently read a very interesting article from The Health Foundation which takes a deep dive from a clinical perspective into the most promising technologies that will help bolster NHS workforce capacity.

As we know, the NHS has far too much work and not enough people to meet the demand, so it therefore needs to innovate – particularly if it is to free up clinician time to do more patient-facing work.

The article – Which technologies offer the biggest opportunities to save time in the NHS? – outlines the challenges and looks at the focal points necessary to move from initial concept to actionable steps.

It does that in terms of influencing key stakeholders – policymakers, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and their counterparts in the devolved nations as well as NHS Providers and the Pharma, MedTech and Device companies.

Collaborative leadership is key

The article emphasises that technological transformation hinges on the engagement of the frontline staff. It also puts forward a hypothesis – that clinical insights are going to be pivotal if we are going to get those staff to foster collaborative working.

That also means we need collaborative leadership. It can’t just be one aspect of the NHS saying they are going to do something and ignoring the impact that might have on everybody else.

I see collaborative leadership as absolutely essential if we are going to redesign NHS care, not just in the immediate future but also in the years to come.

The current unprecedented levels of demand on the NHS means technology is now being viewed as a real ally. It presents some genuine opportunities to bolster workforce capacity within the NHS.

It was mentioned in the Spring Budget just a few weeks ago, and it’s part of both the NHS Long Term Plan and the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan – they see technology as playing a key role.

Staff see Zoom and Teams as massively helpful

If we start to look at this document – which is really a research piece – it’s comprehensive, it’s UK-wide, and it was produced by clinical staff alongside some expert insights and consultations.

The analysis sheds light on the clinical perspective regarding technology and its potential and some of the things they’ve come up with are certainly eye-opening.

Some of the questions are structured around productivity and freeing more time for patient care and it essentially says, ‘Here are the necessary steps if we’re going to harness those opportunities more effectively.’

The piece shows that clinical staff see electronic health records, digital messaging and video platforms such as Zoom and Teams as the paramount opportunity to streamline staff operations.

That, for me, was the biggest eye-opener. People in the Pharma, MedTech and Device industries would traditionally have seen the opportunity for technology to improve patient outcomes and reduce workload.

But actually, clinical staff are saying an integrated health electronic record between primary care, community services and secondary care is ideal and digital technology in terms of video conferencing and messaging is really helpful because not everything has to be done face to face.

That’s a contrast to the conventional focus of the policymakers, which has always been on cutting-edge clinical and patient-orientated technologies. They look at how those technologies maximise time-saving in the face of burgeoning demand such as aiding administrative tasks or operational efficiency or professional communications alongside those really clinically-focused functions.

Read my blog – Win over the NHS by helping to solve the spiralling workload crisisby clicking here.

Jury’s still out on some aspects of AI

But – and I agree with the document here – any gains in the immediate future are going to hinge upon being able to optimise what we’ve already got. Before we start looking for new technologies, let’s get a handle on what’s already working.

You’ve got pockets of brilliance within the NHS that don’t actually get scaled out. So, the use of existing technologies that have been shown to deliver needs to be maximised and scaled out across the country before we leap in and embrace the new novel technologies.

One of the document’s key findings is that electronic health records not only alleviate workload pressure but there are also anticipated further benefits over the next five years and beyond. Given that hospital trusts have widely adopted the use of them, it becomes imperative that we have a complete national strategy on how to fully exploit them and the advantages they offer.

As expected, the clinical teams are really cautious – there’s maybe a little bit of optimism, but it’s best described as cautious optimism – regarding the time-saving potential of artificial intelligence (AI) within the next decade.

The article looks at clinical documentation tools and software for analysing images and test results. They’re seen as front runners in terms of where AI might be poised to come in and exert an influence.

Additionally, they say AI’s promise in enhancing data analysis is very welcome, but to get to that point – beyond what the document describes as ‘AI hype’ – they need real-world evidence, proper testing and assessment of the new technologies.

To do that, they need customers who will take it on so it’s a chicken and egg situation. To get the real world evidence they require, they need pilot sites, centres of excellence and reference sites up and running.

I know from my own work over two years where we looked at an AI technology and threw a huge amount of time and resource at it, we simply couldn’t get the clinical engagement and so I made the decision to stop.

I have no doubt that at some point, that particular technology will fly, but it just wasn’t going to happen at that time, despite being really robust and already used in other parts of the world.

The technical support for staff has to be there, or people lose faith

If we are going to realise the productivity outcomes that they see from this, it isn’t all just sat on the technology itself – it needs proficient use by teams within the NHS. To do that, we’ve got to get over what are often significant hurdles that get in the way of effective technology adoption among staff.

Some of that isn’t just the staff. It’s the deficiencies in the underlying IT infrastructure and then digital proficiency, alongside scaling implementation and getting people to actually use it.

The document highlights considerable concerns regarding inadequate IT, and support around the IT. Funding constraints for technology are another concern, as is sub-par connectivity (slow wi-fi) and the quality of the equipment in some places.

Addressing those issues will be imperative if we are going to unlock the real potential.

It’s regrettable that the trajectory of the technology development and dissemination often deviates from workforce preferences. A lot of that is driven by the fact suppliers don’t talk about the problem they are able to solve – they talk a lot about the product instead.

That gets us into NHS frameworks and procurement, and that slows down the progress.

Top-down management won’t help us

For me, if we are to ensure the success of the technology within the NHS, it needs greater staff involvement. First, in understanding the demand, then shaping the technology development to meet that demand and finally in how it is deployed. We need proper strategies for all of that.

When you let those frontline teams own the problem, and you let them create the solution, you get great implementation, primarily because people want to see the project they’ve developed actually work.

Participation is key because when you take that approach, you align what the policymakers want, what the industry stakeholders hope to implement, and what the healthcare providers and staff want from the technology. You can really redefine the care provision and pathways within the NHS.

But the problem is that the NHS works top-down and in a command-and-control way, where a small steering group tells everybody else where they’re going wrong. That’s destined to fail because people will resist even the best ideas because they haven’t been involved in their development.

Virtual ward project shows how technology could work

There’s an area highlighted in the NHS operating framework where we currently have 11,000 virtual ward patients, and the target across the country is to run at 80 per cent occupancy.

This is often called hospital at home. It’s very technology driven and essentially monitors people at home and if they’re seen to become unwell they can intervene early to avoid unnecessary appointments in general practice, referrals into secondary care and non-elective admissions to hospital.

You can read more about a project in the Midlands that’s done really well here and more about virtual wards here.

As part of this, I ran a quick LinkedIn search and found 3,000 people in the NHS with virtual ward as part of their role. So there’s clearly a huge opportunity in there for industry if you’re dealing with technology.

Scott McKenzie helps pharmaceutical, medical technology, and appliance firms get their products and services in front of the right NHS decision-makers. He helped to land no fewer than 53 new projects with the NHS in 2023 alone and has now developed a 12-month mentorship programme that helps individuals and teams get straight to the heart of the challenges of selling to the NHS. If you want to get your products fully embedded into treatment pathways, Scott can help. Get unprecedented access to key customer insights, proven tools, resources and strategies, plus 1-2-1 coaching and decision-maker introductions to finally get your project over the line. Find out more here.