Setting out his vision for the future of healthcare, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has highlighted the need for national open standards and more flexibility for local NHS organisations buying technology. He has declared that “outdated and obstructive NHS IT systems will become a thing of the past” as we move towards the most advanced health and care system in the world.
There’s no denying the truth of Hancock’s technology vision, the importance of streamlining products and services and the need for systems to talk to one another – all are vital to the integration of health and social care throughout the UK. While it’s refreshing to have leadership that understands the problem, the recently released vision for digital, data and technology is by no means an emerging strategy. Vendors in the industry have been championing interoperability as a core function of their business ethos for years, backed by the views and supporting deeds of senior officials in the NHS, local government and education.
Not just devolution, but evolution everywhere
As one of the most significant requirements in providing high-quality care, the true interoperability between healthcare providers, systems, technology, and information is of paramount importance. But it’s also one of the most difficult to achieve and the lack of open standard is a recurrent problem throughout the healthcare supply chain. Disparate vendors, processes, and standards all create barriers to delivering good patient outcomes and the exchange of healthcare information among electronic systems still remains a hurdle.
For many NHS organisations increased interoperability means creating new workstreams and changing mindsets. However, devolved regions like Greater Manchester, Scotland and Jersey provide an ideal testing ground to pioneer these radical reforms. Having bid for full control of their health and social care budgets clinicians, consultants, vendors and management are working to bridge gaps and connect information. Places where acute care, social workers, midwives and outreach teams can and do share data. Following this, non-devolved centres of care are changing, department by department, to link the services their patients and citizens need most, from hospital and care home providers to specific outpatient care, and mental health services.
The road to NHS interoperability won’t be an easy one and weak treatment pathways have been widely acknowledged by Hancock himself as reducing patients’ chances of joined up care. In fact, both Dr Simon Eccles, Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care at NHS England, and Sarah Wilkinson, Chief Executive at NHS Digital supported this fundamental statement as part of the launch of Hancock’s strategy. Implementing and investing in high-quality IT systems will ultimately give citizens a safer and more efficient journey through the treatment process. It also applies to the protection and safeguarding of children and adults through mental health and education pathways.
The guiding principles are already in play
For any technological solution introduced within the health system, the key to success is understanding the user need during the entire process. It’s not hard to point out that the NHS has been crying out for tech solutions for years, especially the sluggishly outdated IT systems.
Now that the call with greater interoperability has been made, NHS organisations should look to deploy systems which empower frontline workers and allow them to engage more deeply in their roles. Part of this involves looking at the issues impacting healthcare facilities and finding intuitive ways to combat the additional operational strains they face. Enriching data through the digitisation of patient records offers a higher level of care and fundamentally streamlines systems. This is an important starting point and the creation of open standards ensures that patient data is available throughout health and social care. Not only does this remove the need for paper-based processes but it also facilitates the flow of real-time information which supports staff in delivering the right care, the right patient, at the right time.
Hospitals such as St Vincent’s University Hospital and Lincolnshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust have already begun digitising patient data processes with the aim of harnessing real-time data, improving transparency and safely sharing data between various systems and mobile applications.
As NHS organisations from across the country rise to the challenge of connecting people and data, it’s important that systems communicate in a way that serves patients and enhances their care. While there will always be budget constraints and the drive to do more with less, it’s imperative that the right tools are put in place. As Hancock believes, the key to delivering the healthcare system of the future is getting the basics right. With the support from a visionary Health Secretary, the NHS and healthcare system will have a chance to succeed.