Charlie de Montfort, consultant at Capgemini Consulting, discusses why tech initiatives need to work in collaboration with patients and NHS staff to tackle key challenges and drive value from digital solutions in healthcare

The NHS has not developed the best reputation for utilising technology over the past few years. In 2013, the NHS abandoned a project focused on digitising health records at an estimated cost of £10 billion, after it was labelled one of the ‘worst fiascos ever’. In 2015, it was revealed that a library of NHS approved healthcare apps did not encrypt personal information, while the National Audit Office slammed a data sharing system for GPs for being over budget and used by only one clinic.

Transforming the NHS from an organisation reliant on legacy equipment and paper files is proving a long, difficult process.

The NHS’ digital technology agenda

The Department of Health has clearly recognised that technology has a vital role to play

In the past two years, the Department of Health has commissioned the Wachter Report to look at how technology can improve the NHS, and NHS England has launched both technology test beds and the Global Digital Exemplar (GDE) programme – harnessing digital technology is clearly at the forefront of the NHS’s agenda.

These initiatives, which have evolved out of the Five Year Forward view, are pivotal to tackling the NHS’s care delivery challenges posed by an ageing population, mental health illnesses, obesity and long-term conditions such as diabetes.

To give you a more specific idea of the numbers; one million patients visit the NHS every 36 hours, the number of A&E admissions has risen by 25% over the past decade, and the number of diabetes patients is expected to increase to five million by 2025.

In light of such figures, the Department of Health has clearly recognised that technology has a vital role to play in solving some of these challenges and reducing the pressure on the NHS.

Faced with unprecedented financial and operational pressure, however, the NHS simply cannot afford  to not get its next implementation right.   

Steps in the right direction

There are already a number of technology-based projects underway in the NHS that are starting to see positive results in terms of improving patient outcomes and increasing efficiency.

Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust is using smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable people with dementia to stay at home longer, as it looks to tackle its portion of the £26 billion annual dementia care cost to the health and social care sector in the UK.

The project involves kitting out the homes of a sample of dementia sufferers with smart devices including sensors, apps and trackers to build up a detailed picture of their health and behaviour, and then using that data to predict imminent health issues that could require immediate treatment.

In the long term, this will reduce doctor’s appointments, unplanned emergency admissions, and costly medical care bills.

The National Programme for IT failed due to its top-down model, overly centralised decision-making and a lack of local engagement

Meanwhile, many trusts are introducing a platform called DrDoctor, which allows patients to schedule, view and make changes to their appointments quickly and easily via their smartphones, leading to lower ‘did not attend rates’ and increased clinic utilisation.

These are just two examples of the way in which technology is helping address real-life issues within today’s health service. The challenge now is to move the initial implementations beyond the project stage – to deploy these technologies at scale so they can work across multiple NHS Trusts.

The way forward

Putting together different technologies, entrepreneurs and innovators and then pairing them with real-world challenges is key to ensuring the NHS’s track record with technology improves. But it is a massive challenge to deliver targeted solutions to an organisation that consists of 853 for-profit and not-for-profit independent sector organisations.

In part, the National Programme for IT failed due to its top-down model, overly centralised decision-making and a lack of local engagement with end users (such as staff and patients) whose needs were poorly understood.

If the NHS is going to be successful in bringing its technology into the 21st century, it needs to first develop a system that will ensure proper consultation with multiple medical departments as part of the development phase.

Similarly, for their part, rather than creating products in relative isolation and then taking them to market, tech firms must collaborate with patients and frontline NHS staff to identify what the key, practical challenges are and where the opportunities lie to really leverage the value of digital solutions.