Poor quality IT systems and equipment are losing the UK health sector up to 13.5 million working hours per year and harming its ability to care for patients, a new study by the British Medical Association (BMA) has revealed. It recommends a major upgrade and replacement program to solve the problem or risk the issue getting worse.
The NHS is under increased strain from flu season, Covid-19, staffing shortages as well as impending strikes and a lack of investment in software, hardware and technology infrastructure is exacerbating the problem.
In its Building the Future report, the BMA makes the case for urgent investment in safe, modern technology and data, finding that just 11% of UK doctors reported that they had all the necessary equipment to perform their job effectively.
More than 13,000 BMA members were questioned as part of the study, asked about the various barriers they face from technology when it comes to doing their job and helping patients.
A third of doctors working across primary and secondary care described software used in their practice as rarely adequate and not fit for purpose, with only 4% completely satisfied.
The interoperability of clinical information systems is still a “significant barrier” to digital transformation, the report found, with 68% of doctors ‘not very confident’ that seamless data sharing will be possible across UK health services within the next decade.
This lack of interoperability also poses a risk to patients, one doctor told the survey. “I work in a psychiatric role where I am required to rapidly understand patients’ backgrounds and past involvement with services. The IT provided is completely inadequate and patient information is spread across three separate electronic clinical records systems, plus more historic information on paper notes not immediately available.”
NHS IT: problems are putting patients at risk
The doctor explained that this results in an enormous amount of time taken to reconstruct the back story for every patient, increasing the risk of information being missed. “With better IT systems this time could be reduced from hours per patient to minutes per patient.”
Doctors involved in the survey said it is important clinicians are involved in the design of digital programmes and strategies to ensure they are user friendly, safe and effective based on real-world use cases and not abstract concepts.
The work to upgrade the UK health tech infrastructure would also require training in digital skills, with 32% of doctors responding that while they had some training to use IT systems, they needed or wanted more.
“Underfunding digital transformation will leave health services on the back foot as they continue to respond to increasing demand,” the BMA report claims. With more than two-thirds of doctors ranking funding as a “significant barrier” to digital transformation in the NHS.
The report recommends a major upgrade of inadequate IT hardware and software, a roll-out of high-speed broadband throughout all UK healthcare facilities and improved interoperability, which would help with dating sharing across health systems.
New robust standards for interoperability are also needed and should be developed by the appropriate UK health service regulatory bodies which will help with data and cyber security.
Digital skills should also be embedded in the wider medical education and training curricula to support doctors upskilling and ensure they can use new systems as they come online.
The training and improved infrastructure would help patients access care in their preferred way and increase transparency around the use of patient data by UK health services.
“Mandating and enforcing interoperability of different systems at a supplier level would solve these problems,” the BMA wrote in the report. “NHS England has committed to ensuring that data is interoperable in the NHS Long Term Plan and in Data Saves Lives – setting out its aim of having open standards for data sharing.”