Can Technology Help Improve the NHS for Doctors, Nurses and Patients?

To say that the NHS and information technology have had a troubled relationship over the past few years is something of an understatement.

From the billions of pounds wasted on the now abandoned NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT, subsequently renamed Connecting for Health) to the multi-million-pound telecommunications system that was abandoned within an hour of it going live last year, the last few years have been littered with ambitious and expensive technology projects that have failed to deliver.

The abject failure of recent big money IT projects doesn’t mean that the NHS should close the door on investing in IT however; the potential is still there for technology to improve how the NHS operates for doctors and patients. Key decisions need to be made by the right people who really understand the issues involved and a realistic and deliverable strategy needs to be in place at the outset.

“Quick Wins” and Easy Improvements Through the Use of Technology

While technology will never eradicate all of the NHS’s many issues in and of itself, it does have the ability to contribute to efforts to reduce the number of clinical negligence claims that are made against the NHS each year. Commentators have recently suggested there are potential “quick wins” that might be put in place – measures that should be relatively quick and easy to implement and that could lead to real and rapid improvements in the health service.

Technology Enabled Care Services (TECS)

The issue of “bed-blocking” has been widely reported on in the press. Beds are blocked when patients remain in hospital (utilising expensive beds and ward space) when their conditions could quite as efectively be monitored and treated at home were it for the existence of appropriate at home care services. Managing patients safely at home and enabling patient-clinical contact remotely is essential for out-of-hospital models of care to succeed. The ability to tele-monitor a patient’s vital signs (such as pulse and blood pressure) remotely, with any deterioration in the patient’s health automatically alerting an on-call doctor or senior nurse who is provided with the patient’s details, location and recent results has been suggested as an opportunity. Freeing up vital beds in hospitals means those that need hospital care the most can be offered it. It also means patients are treated in a way that is cost-effective for the NHS.

Task Management Software

As we covered in a previous article: GP Workloads Could Increase the Risk of Clinical Negligence, GP’s are under growing pressure to manage increased workloads and are working longer hours than ever before in order to cope. This makes doctors far more likely to make basic errors of judgement, which increase the likelihood of patients suffering from a medical misdiagnosis of some kind.

Many of the daily tasks that GP practices have to contend with could be managed much more effectively through the use of improved task management software. Patient management and correspondence could be handled much more efficiently, and with the right task management solution administrative and clinical tasks can be allocated to the right individual (clinical or administrative) automatically.

Long-Term Improvements Through the Use of Technology

As well as numerous other “quick wins” that could help to make the NHS a better health service for everybody, such as tools that automatically report abnormal blood tests and request speciality referrals, there are a number of long-term improvements that could be made to the health service through the use of various technologies.

Improved Infrastructure

Innovation is not always about using the latest technology or the most up-to-date gadget, system or software app. Quite often the key to utilising technology more effectively is the underpinning infrastructure of networks and connectivity. Extending broadband Wi-Fi in GP surgeries would allow much easier and quicker access from mobile devices, while bringing multiple locations into a single network domain also enables much easier information sharing and access across all sites – an essential initiative for preparing the landscape for future integration with social care services.

Paperless Health Service

The government has set aside a budget of £4bn to create a paperless NHS that, it is hoped, will be more convenient for patients and help doctors provide faster diagnoses. Although full details of the funding plans are currently being discussed between the Department of Health and NHS England, they are expected to include:

  • £1.8bn to create a paper-free NHS and remove outdated technology like fax machines;
  • £1bn on cyber-security and data consent;
  • £750m to transform out-of-hospital care, medicines and digitise social care and emergency care; and
  • Approximately £400m to build a new website – nhs.uk – develop apps and provide free Wi-Fi access.

Improved Prosthetics

Advances in technology over the past 10 years have had a significant impact on the development of prosthetic limbs for the victims of road traffic accidents, accidents at work, military injuries and other serious trauma. New materials such as titanium and carbon fibre have helped make modern prosthetics lighter (which in turn allows for greater freedom of movement and reduced user fatigue), while cutting-edge control mechanisms can now incorporate muscle impulses and even brain-computer interfaces, making the prosthetic limb easier to manipulate than ever before. And as technology evolves, 3-D printed limbs, brain-controlled bionic legs and even full exoskeleton suits may all become possible.

High-Impact Improvements through Technology

In 2013, The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement (since replaced with NHS Improving Quality) produced a document on how technology is helping to improve the health service. In it, they outlined the 10 high-impact improvements that the introduction of various technologies has had on the NHS. Community-wide picture archiving and communications systems (PACS) make patient x-ray images available almost instantly from any location; the Choose and Book system (since replaced with the NHS e-Referral Service) is making patient admissions more streamlined; and the introduction of improved patient administration systems (PAS) has resulted in resources being managed more effectively.

Despite these technological advances to the health service, there is still considerable room for improvement and for best practice technologies to be spread across the NHS. Last year, a peer-reviewed evaluation of an electronic medical records system (EMR) found that the introduction of the monitoring system led to 700 fewer deaths in one year at two NHS hospitals, while another evaluation revealed that an infection prevention tool was associated with a 90% reduction in norovirus outbreaks at one NHS trust. These are encouraging reports, but there is still the opportunity to achieve much more. In our January article, 38 “never events” occurred in UK hospitals in October 2015 – we highlighted how more than one “never event” took place each day during the month of October 2015.

Why Technology is Crucial to the Future of the NHS

With a growing elderly population and a growing number of people with Long Term Conditions (LTCs), the already stretched NHS will continue to be put under enormous strain. According to research compiled by The King’s Fund, one in three people (15 million) are living with at least one chronic condition, such as asthma, heart and lung disease, arthritis, hypertension and diabetes. Half of people over the age of 60 have such a condition. It is estimated that by 2025 over 18m will have LTCs. People with LTCs are the biggest users of the NHS, accounting for around 50% of GP appointments, 64% of inpatient appointments and 70% of inpatient hospital beds – meaning 30% of the population accounts for 70% of the spend.

If we continue to manage healthcare services in the same way we do now, it’s estimated that the NHS will cost an additional £4bn to run over the next five years. Clearly something has to be done to alleviate the growing pressure on the health service for it to be able to provide the level of care we wish for ourselves and our loved ones. Effective use of technology may be the cost-effective tool that will provide for improving a healthcare system that fails its patients more often than it should, with devastating consequences for those involved.

Get the Clinical Negligence Compensation You Deserve

If you or a member of your family has suffered a cancer misdiagnosis, surgical error, late diagnosis of cancer or any other form of clinical negligence, contact us on 0800 083 5500 today and get free initial legal advice on how to proceed with your claim. All accepted clinical negligence claims are handled on a “no win, no fee” basis.