COMMENT: Why learning from digital possibilities is essential for NHS recovery

Concepta Wayment, vice president of transformation at Healthcare Communications UK, focuses on the importance of taking the positives from the accelerated digital innovation seen during the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has seen accelerated digital innovation across the healthcare sector. But this must continue if the benefits are to be realised on a more long-term basis

As the world continues to reel from the life-changing effects of COVID-19, here in the UK, the NHS has faced a time of immense pressure and challenges.

Despite this, an unprecedented amount of digital innovation has come about in a short space of time to meet the demands created in the healthcare system while acting as a catalyst for change.

Fundamentally, the NHS reacted quickly to the unexpected events of the pandemic, making a once-in-a-generation shift.

Leaders now need to embrace the pace of change and, although the current pace cannot be sustained; the advantages of the improved decision-making process and the streamlined governance in getting innovative solutions over the line needs to be adopted as organisations plan ahead.

Virtual by default

Over the past few weeks, video and telephone consultations have been rapidly adopted in many hospitals and GP surgeries.

This has enabled vulnerable patients to safely speak to their doctor, highlighting the sheer number of patients who can be seen in this way.

The NHS reacted quickly to the unexpected events of the pandemic, making a once-in-a-generation shift

As this way of working takes shape, NHS leaders must consider what a new normal could look like by evaluating the digital advances made in the past few weeks and the opportunities that integrating these changes even further could bring to the NHS.

The current pandemic has reassured clinicians about the safety element of seeing some patients virtually.

Looking ahead, the move to virtual could also mean that hospitals would need much less physical space in square footage compared to what is required now.

Building on digital innovation to rationalise now, could mean a vast difference to the trust environment, with fewer patients in hospitals and more space for services to accommodate social distancing and provide COVID-19 free areas.

Over the past few months video and telephone consultations have been rapidly adopted in many hospitals and GP surgeries

The patient experience could be positively impacted with many more patients having their consultations at home, and avoiding the journey into hospital coupled with the stresses of transport, parking and waiting for appointments.

Contingency planning would also mean that, with digital support, clinicians could immediately work remotely in case of the need to self isolate in the future.

Serious consideration needs to be given to continuing with digital advances at pace and making it part of the new normal, with services run as virtual by default and only holding face-to-face consultations by exception.

NHS leaders must consider what a new normal could look like by evaluating the digital advances made in the past few weeks and the opportunities that integrating these changes even further could bring to the NHS

Undoubtedly, there will be many patients who will need to be seen face to face, but, equally, a significant number of patients can be seen virtually.

This is where the digital solutions, such as our eForms and eClinic, can deliver.

Concepta Wayment, vice president of transformation at Healthcare Communications UK, said that building on the digital innovation seen in the past few months, trusts could bring about significant efficiencies

Pro-active not reactive

Looking more immediately, the key actions that leaders need to consider include pro-active mass patient communication from the very beginning of the recovery phase.

Ensuring that an effective holding communication is sent to all patients as soon as normality starts to return is critical to ensuring that booking centre teams are not overwhelmed, re-actively having to manage thousands of calls from anxious patients.

The capacity of booking centre staff is limited, and they will need to focus on making significant progress on the volumes of patients who have become urgent, who are now on waiting lists.

Digital innovation such as patient pathway eForms from Healthcare Communications facilitates waiting list validation, meaning patients can be risk stratified and prioritised.

Following on with digital triage at the start of the pathway can supply clinicians with vital information as to which patients need to be seen urgently or routinely and who can go back onto waiting lists for now.

This is an opportunity to lead the NHS into its next phase – improving the way we interact with patients and digitising the NHS for the benefit of staff and patients

These are real decisions that clinicians need to make over the coming few weeks and providing a solution that supports this process at scale and safely is key.

The detailed breakdown clinicians receive will enable effective triage from the offset and also allow teams to determine who can be assessed by a clinical nurse specialist or a pharmacist, for example, to free up consultant capacity.

This high-level validation also allows for forecasting to prepare for high volumes of patients, patterns and fluctuations to enable forward planning and effectively mobilising clinical teams.

A new future

Plans, strategies and changes made now need to be sustained.

This is an opportunity to lead the NHS into its next phase – improving the way we interact with patients and digitising the NHS for the benefit of staff and patients.

The NHS has shown it can make necessary change at a faster pace than the norm.

Patients, including the elderly, have shown their ability to adapt to technology, using a range of avenues to keep in touch with family and friends.

Patients have embraced digital innovation and the NHS should continue to build on this moving into the future.

It is crucial that organisations keep the momentum going at a fraction of the pace of change that has been demonstrated over the past weeks.

Leaders need to now plan for the best and prepare for the worst.

It is crucial that organisations keep the momentum going at a fraction of the pace of change that has been demonstrated over the past weeks

In the event of another surge of the pandemic, sustainable digital solutions need to be embedded now and at the forefront of all contingency plans to futureproof the pressure on the NHS.

Despite what has been learnt to date, we are still dealing with the unknown and planning for the unknown needs to become business as usual as trusts prepare to escalate and de-escalate quickly and easily.

The suite of digital solutions which has swept the NHS during this pandemic has brought the critical role of innovative technology to the forefront, reinforcing the urgent need for updated digital systems, an end to paper notes, and centralised patient records for the UK.

NHS leaders need to ensure they continue to move forward with the quick turnaround of digital innovation which has already been demonstrated, not only to battle future waves of the virus, but also to pave the way for more ambitious technology such as artificial intelligence.

Utilising the power of digital solutions and integrating them into everyday life will be the crucial step in supporting staff and delivering patient care safely and efficiently as we move into this next phase.