Putting Patients at the Heart of a Digital Healthcare Strategy


How patient-centric technology can play a leading role in securing the future of the NHS.

As technology expands its reach into the healthcare sector, the UK government predicts a ‘patient power decade’ in which patients will increasingly access their health services digitally. It comes at a time of deepening crisis for the NHS, compounded by a more expectant, growing and ageing population. As politicians call for a cross-party approach to addressing spiralling costs and demand, can patient-centric technology play a leading role in reshaping the future of healthcare and get the NHS off the critical list?

Bringing patients into sharp focus

Perhaps it’s not just Westminster that wants to work together to find a long-term, sustainable solution. Our own recent research into businesses’ digital attitudes and behaviours found that an impressive 86% UK businesses in the public sector have some form of digital transformation underway. Add to that views of the public in a different survey where 70% of people indicated they’d be happy to use artificial intelligence to help doctors save time and resources, especially in primary care. Together these signal that, as technology becomes more entrenched in business as well as our day-to-day lives, the time is right to jointly kick-start a tech-led, health revolution.

Steps to make the current IT infrastructure ‘fit for purpose’ in a digital world began in earnest in 2014 when the NHS outlined its vision for ‘digital rebirth’. The mission had a triple aim: better health for populations, better care for patients and lower costs allowing the NHS to do more for the money available. This national focus has now resulted in the development of key systems – in particular the migration of the N3 Network to a new, interoperate network known as the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) – that enables different areas of the health service to talk to one another as well as communicate and collaborate more effectively with patients. In time, as technology evolves and information is more readily shared, I imagine that opportunities to analyse and interrogate through Big Data will come to the fore.

WiFi. More than just connectivity

At the beginning of this year, NHS Digital provided funding to 20 clinical commissioning groups to rollout free WiFi for patients and practices. The initiative is on track to deliver WiFi in all GP surgeries by the end of this year and in all acute, mental health and community hospital trusts by the end of next.

As WiFi becomes available across the healthcare spectrum, so too does the potential to transform patient care and efficiency. Patients and visitors stand to benefit from a connection with the outside world and, for patients admitted into hospitals for long periods, staying in touch with relatives and friends is likely to have a positive impact on their wellbeing, mental health and recovery times.

But beyond that, this WiFi revolution has the power to streamline processes and empower patients at that same time. Front of house, there’s no reason why outpatients connected to WiFi networks can’t eventually check-in online, look-up appointment information, submit real-time feedback on their patient experience or access location-based services such as hospital maps. Conversely, back of house, when combined with location analytics and Big Data, this digital infrastructure will have the capability to deliver fresh insights. Ponder the way in which NHS spaces are utilised. With a more accurate picture of waiting room dwell times and the number of hours spent in accident and emergency departments, new strategies can be developed that will work to eliminate bottlenecks.

Tomorrow’s tech, today

There’s early evidence of other emerging technologies transforming the healthcare service we have today. The Royal Liverpool Hospital, let’s say, uses sophisticated sensors to enable 24/7/265 observation of cardiac arrests, whereas the Imperial in London leverages automation to undertake remote measurements in its maternity wards. But while digital technology can address many issues within the health service itself, how might it help stem the flow of unnecessary admissions in the first place?

Consider wearable tech; roughly 37% of the British public use some form of wearable technology for fitness, health or wellbeing purposes. Very soon, more sophisticated devices will not only track how much exercise you do and what your heart rate is, but will also measure much more complex data such as oxygen or hormone levels. For example, the recently launched Ava bracelet – a smartwatch system for women that serves up fertility and pregnancy insight. Wearable tech could also be used as part of the diagnosis stage to monitor chronic conditions such as blood sugar levels in the case of diabetes, potentially reducing frequency of GP visits.

A partnership between patient and doctor

In order for the benefits of digitisation to be fully realised, the healthcare service and its patients need to co-exist as trusted partners rather than exist as separate entities, with patients playing a much bigger part in managing their own health. It’s reassuring that so much is already being done to modernise the existing service. More can always be done, though the speed at which Trusts can deploy digital solutions, dealing with legacy systems and existing infrastructure remain significant challenges. Ultimately, putting all of these possible solutions into a cohesive plan that is affordable and bought into by the public and government for generations to come is the biggest challenge of all. If we can crack that, then together we can ensure the survival of one of our greatest public assets.

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