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December 15, 2020updated 12 Apr 2021 9:54am

From crisis mode to lasting change: NHS IT’s response to the pandemic

The UK's health service has a unique opportunity to drive innovation, says Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust CIO Joanna Smith.

By Edward Qualtrough

IT staff at the UK’s National Health Service rose to the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, working long hours in tough conditions to make sure front-line healthcare workers had the support and information they needed. Now, says Joanna Smith, group CIO of the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, the challenge is to move beyond crisis mode and translate digital innovation into lasting improvements in the provision in healthcare.

Some familiar challenges – legacy IT, poor data quality, paper processes – need to be addressed but the Trust is undergoing a technology transformation that Smith described as “probably the best-kept secret of the North” at New Statesman Media Group’s CIO Town Hall Live forum last week.

The perception of the IT, information services and informatics departments within the NHS received a significant boost thanks to their response to the Covid-19 crisis, explained Smith, who was interim CIO at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London for much of this year.

“The impacts are different across primary care, acute and specialist healthcare environments – with elective work stood down under instruction – but in all cases informatics has been absolutely recognised and appreciated,” Smith said.

“If you think about healthcare – particularly in A&E – it’s a crisis scenario saving lives with these god-like creatures doing incredible things. I think IT organisations have adopted that crisis mentality. They love to be the heroes, put themselves last, and work all the hours.

“The challenge now is we need to move people from crisis-reactive behaviours, to more proactive and preventative – and that’s not such a natural style across all parts of health,” she said.

With some blocks on funding lifted as a result of the pandemic, however, NHS Trusts now have a unique opportunity push on with their digitisation agendas, Smith added.

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Permanent changes

The disruption brought about by the pandemic will have lasting and positive implications for the provision of healthcare, Smith believes.

Virtual consultations, whether at a GP’s surgery or highly specialist hospital, and telehealth services that allow patients to self-report medical updates are two immediate examples of innovations that will outlast the pandemic. The obligation to rethink the process of receiving patients in a hospital mean that it can now, in some cases, be bypassed.

But while Covid-19 has catalysed some beneficial changes, many of the biggest technology challenges in healthcare remain largely unchanged from before the pandemic, Smith said. These include dealing with a messy legacy application and infrastructure landscape, varying qualities of data in the systems, too much paper, as well as continued use of faxes and pagers.

“The result is an ongoing burden of support and cost which doesn’t deliver to the clinical coalface what it wants – which is timely, accurate information that is required to respond to patient care,” Smith said.

The digitisation of patient records, however, has the ability to transform how NHS Trusts can deliver clinical care. Only by making sure “data is available, accurate and clean, enabling far better reporting” would healthcare organisations be able to utilise artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities in the corporate and clinical space, Smith said.

The Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, the UK’s largest, is therefore undertaking a programme to implement new electronic patient record and patient administration systems. The Hive programme, which will give the trust a new technology platform for the next 15 years, will save “hundreds of millions of pounds and deliver phenomenal change and benefits”, Smith said.

NHS technology jobs

North Manchester General Hospital, currently part of The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, is expected to become part of the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust group in April 2021, and the Trust has ambitious plans to transform the site with a new hospital development that Group CIO Smith believes will be “truly digital by design”.

Smith said that part of the business case developed by Manchester FT was “the opportunity to have a redeveloped site that’s a fully digitally-based environment”.

Whether the new site happens or not, Smith made a call for technology, digital and IT professionals to consider a career in the NHS. “The NHS is an astounding place to work,” she said. “It’s wonderful and we desperately want and need more skilled and experienced people, so if you are thinking of moving into the NHS in technology, please do so.”

Featured photo by AC Manley/Shutterstock.

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