Published on in HealthcareInnovation

Well, we’ve made it through a challenging few months.

But as we prepare for a possible second wave, it’s crucial we look back and learn from how our NHS coped.

In the last blog in this series, I wrote about how the UK Armed Forces lent the NHS assistance at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. And what a partnership it’s been – from erecting the Nightingale Hospital in just ten days to helping with the procurement, distribution, and even manufacturing of PPE equipment.

It’s a fantastic story collaboration. But now, it’s time to look further into the future.

COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in the NHS that we all knew were there. Over the last few months, the need for organisational, logistical, and technological overhauls have also become apparent.

Our healthcare staff, to put it simply, have worked their socks off. Their dedication during the crisis has been extraordinary. So we need an NHS whose systems and processes are just an exceptional as they are.

In this blog I want to zoom out a little and explore some of the wider challenges the NHS must fix in order to carry on providing world-class healthcare in a post-COVID world.

A national response

Despite having the ‘N’ in its title, the NHS’s response to COVID-19 hasn’t been quite as ‘national’ as it could have been.

The NHS is made up of lots of quasi-autonomous institutions which makes co-ordinating country wide responses difficult. A good example of this were the difficulties faced in tracking PPE within the NHS. We saw this during the peak of the crisis. Some trusts ran out of PPE equipment, while others were over-indexing. The NHS had never before been in a position where it had burned through equipment so fast and struggled to coordinate an effective response.

Now that we’re past the peak and potentially heading for a new one, trusts are replenishing their supplies. But even with surplus stock, this isn’t a long-term solution.

A second wave is imminent. The inefficiencies of searching for stock/waiting for it to be delivered are not sustainable.

One in three nurses spend an hour or more searching for equipment during their shifts. This isn’t just bad for productivity, but also staff wellbeing. NHS processes need to galvanise workers – not mentally fatigue them.

Going forward, the NHS must work as a single coordinated unit. And one of the key pillars that’ll enable this is technology.

An innovative future

Throughout the crisis, tech has really proved itself to be invaluable to the NHS, making the service more versatile for whoever needs it.

Remote consultations for example – whether through phone or video – have been fundamental over the last months. This was something that NHS was highly resistant against in the past. But in testing times, needs must.

The benefits of remote consultations go beyond social distancing.

They’re also fast and convenient. Particularly for routine check-ups, where a doctor may only need to ask a patient a handful of question. For the patient, a two-hour round trip can be turned into a 10-minute video call. So this is certainly something the NHS needs to adopt going forward.

And on the subject of remote care, there’s also the enticing prospect of smart medical devices.

If these devices can be configured in such a way that the data they produce can be trusted by clinicians they can significantly reduce the need for in-person follow-up appointments. Doctors can view patient data, and only arrange appointments when they’re needed. This approach can also pre-emptively spot problems – quickly nipping them in the bud before they become a real issue.

While these smart devices are becoming more common, properly embracing them will save countless hours of needless consultation.

And then there’s those big blue-sky projects. Things like delivering blood via drone and remote surgery. These are quickly becoming a reality – but it requires health services to make the technological investment.

Shaking up healthcare

That’s all very well for the future – but change is all about those first few steps.

There’s plenty of low hanging fruit. Tracking equipment, sharing patient records, remote consultations, possibly discharging patients earlier; small improvements that will make a dramatic difference when added up.

The NHS can also improve how they utilise staff – things like managing strain, onboarding, better management of locums and staff bank, and making the ongoing task of rostering more interactive. The enthusiasm is already there. Now it’s time to augment it with intelligent people management.

The thing that ties all of these together is technology. The need to generate, manage and – critically – share data, in order to get a complete view of operational activity. And while investment is important, arguably the biggest challenge is cultural.

When push came to shove, the NHS showed it could embrace remote consultations effectively. It can mobilise staff. It can even build an entire hospital in just nine days! Now is the time to bottle that resilience, and use it to transform the NHS into something we can continue to be proud of.

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