This week, the government have launched its latest attempt to improve the use of technology across the NHS in England. They are finding £4 billion in a drive to move the NHS to a digital future. The vision is to have a paperless service offering more convenience to patients and saving valuable time for doctors and nurses. The aim will be to allow patients to book services and order prescriptions online, and choose to speak to their doctor online or via video links.
It doesn’t sound very groundbreaking when you consider how we interact and use other services across other sectors. However, this is the NHS, so perhaps it IS groundbreaking considering the origins of the organisation. The principles of the NHS haven’t changed since it was born in 1948 – to provide good healthcare, regardless of wealth, to all – but the world around it has changed beyond recognition. In 1948 a quarter of homes in England had no electricity and there were only 14,500 televisions in the entire country. We had a population of around 45 million (it’s predicted we will have 67 million people living in the UK by 2020).
However, this week’s announcement does sound pretty familiar. Under the previous coalition government, Mr Hunt announced the NHS would go paperless by 2018. Although I want to believe it, I’m slightly sceptical as earlier attempts by previous governments have failed spectacularly. In 2002 Labour pledged to launch electronic medical records but having spent £10 billion the scheme was scrapped, as they just couldn’t get to grips with the mammoth task. £10 billion would have funded a lot of new doctors.
In defence it’s not surprising that the NHS has struggled with the challenges of adapting to change. The scale of the organisation is immense. NHS England is a giant, dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours and employing over 1.3 million people. So many users, thousands of different IT legacy systems and limited budgets for change management is a tough mix.
Combine all of that with much improved life expectancy rates and an ever-increasing population and the NHS has a toxic mix on its hands. At a point when it’s arguably facing the worse financial crisis in a generation, digitalising some NHS services will save time and money in the longer term whilst providing patients with a much better experience.
Innovation will be critical to enabling the NHS to continue operating. Yes, we want to see more miracle cures but this has to be combined with harnessing technology to make the NHS operationally more efficient. It shouldn’t just be about booking appointments online, the changes need to go much further. Getting patients to use wearables to track health and fitness could be a start but it will be how that data links to your records and is used by medical professionals to understand you and your medical needs that will offer the most value.
The NHS is a great organisation that does so much good for so many people. I truly hope the government delivers on their promise to bring the NHS into the digital age.