Industry | Healthcare
What lies ahead
for UK healthcare?
When Covid-19 hit, it’s safe to say it only strengthened our national pride in the NHS.
Weekly applause. Rainbows in windows. Rallying calls for nurse pay rises.
But alongside a heroic effort by NHS staff nationwide to care for people with Covid-19, other parts of the NHS had to adapt faster than ever before.
From introducing socially-distanced waiting rooms through to conducting clinics by telephone and by video, the changes were both fast and fundamental.
The Health Service was already starting to embrace digital tools and technology before the pandemic struck.
But what we saw last year was a rapid acceleration. What had previously seemed just 'possible' now appears completely normal.
There's now a new appetite to use digital solutions within the NHS.
Solutions which will shape the future of healthcare for years to come.
The rapid operational, technological and medical strides taken during the pandemic, coupled with the ongoing vaccine rollout, provides renewed hope for 2021 and beyond.
Lessons learned from the first wave
The first wave of Covid-19 tested the limits of health services across society, rapidly accelerating technological and cultural changes as a result.
NHS Nightingale hospitals were built in a matter of weeks. Video consultations with patients became the default, reducing the need for people to leave their homes during the first lockdown. Online networks were set up to keep cancer patients connected and motivated during the toughest moments. Electronic prescriptions soared, with repeat orders through the NHS App increasing by 97% in March alone.
The NHS has coped well during the pandemic, all things considered. But Covid-19 has placed a huge amount of pressure on our an already strained healthcare system, highlighting a number of challenges relating to its digital capabilities. To successfully rebound following the vaccine rollout, it will need to address legacy issues around digitisation left over from years of tightening budgets and capitalise on the new opportunities for transformation created during Covid.
We’ve been speaking to healthcare leaders across the UK and listening to our own customers.
We wanted to understand how Covid-19 is impacting the sector and how health and social care organisation can best prepare for the road ahead, and how digital transformation will help.
Here’s what we learned…
Preparing for COVID-19
The UK’s health sector was more prepared for the impact of Covid-19 than many others.
80% of public healthcare leaders thought their organisations was well prepared for the impact of the virus when it struck in March.
60% of private healthcare leaders said the same – a higher percentage than in other private sectors like retail.
The widespread roll-out of remote care and virtual appointments is an example of this, having played a crucial role in reducing the number of people requiring in-person consultations during the first wave.
Face-to-face GP appointments declined from around 80% to below 10% in a matter of weeks, according to NHS Digital.
As the health sector enters a new phase of tackling the virus, we must prepare for what comes next.
The improvements we’ve seen coming out of those investments accelerated by Covid-19 – new hospital equipment, telemedicine and remote care, for example – are expected to continue post pandemic.
While the NHS debt created as a result of the virus is expected to be written off, there will be a need to balance further investment with getting the most out of what is already in place,and this will lead to a redesign and refocus of the NHS budget.
When this happens, funding for digital transformation is likely to be more evenly spread across the UK to cover trusts that haven’t previously advanced their digital infrastructure and solutions.
As soon as the pandemic is under control, this will create the opportunity for higher and more equal standards of care provision across the country.
Ultimately this is about enabling the NHS to tackle the ongoing challenges caused by Covid-19. But it’s also about making sure the health service can deliver on long-term plans for digital health.
Meeting future demand
With Covid-19 effectively providing NHS providers with a blank slate to reimagine the way care is delivered, what will the main priorities for technological investment be?
The NHS Long Term Plan details ambitious plans for a ‘digital first’ healthcare system: digital access to NHS services,online tools that help patients manage their own health, ensuring that clinicians can access and interact with patient records and care plans wherever they are, and much more.
Covid-19 has kickstarted many digital transformation projects that were already underway within the NHS and private health companies.
We have moved to a principle of digital first in
primary care and with outpatients, unless there
are clinical or practical reasons, all
consultations should be done by telemedicine
Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
Customer Priorities Post COVID-19
The right investment in technology will create better patient care outcomes, drive efficiencies and cost-savings and productivity in staff. Among the healthcare leaders we spoke to, security (88%), network capability (70%) and mobile working (70%) were the top priorities for post-Covid-19 spend.
Healthcare organisations have used tools like video conferencing apps to treat patients throughout the crisis. This looks set to continue well into the future.
It took a pandemic to land a cultural change.
Video conferencing has made a massive
difference to clinics and dramatically changed
the landscape of the hospital.
Like many industries, home and flexible
working has become the norm where
This poses difficulties for healthcare workers handling and sharing sensitive patient data remotely, however. Security continues to be a major issue and more investment is needed in secure solutions to make remote working a permanent fixture within the sector.
Challenges resulting from COVID-19
Until the vaccine programme is completed, Covid-19 will continue to disrupt our health service in the months ahead.
There will continue to be a need for accurately monitoring, predicting and planning for ongoing infection, including testing, contact tracing and efficient isolation of at-risk and exposed people.
Beyond that, healthcare providers will need to look at solving other technological and cultural challenges as the sector continues to tackle the virus over the winter months.
The rapid uptake of digital healthcare solutions during the first wave had positive short-term outcomes. But the speed of adopting these inevitably meant duplication and fragmentation will be widespread.
Organisations will need to take the time to understand how they can fix these issues and make improvements for the long term.
Covid-19 has also exposed the lack of a clean, standardised, codified way of sharing data in real time. Healthcare workers and patients have long been frustrated with how difficult it is to transfer basic information from one NHS body to another.
It’s hugely inefficient and puts added stress on patients at a time they need access to information the most.
Lastly, there is an entrenched cultural barrier towards technological adoption within healthcare.
While many trusts have led the way, including North Bristol NHS’ ambitious long-term OneNBT Digital Vision, the pandemic has pressed fast-forward on other projects that were planned or underway.
This, in turn, has caused other organisations to realise that digital transformation is vital for improving patient care and operating as a modern healthcare provider.
The new health sector
Covid-19 is having a devastating impact on the UK, and our health services are truly on the front line of this pressure.
Like many other sectors, however, the crisis has forced the NHS and private healthcare to rapidly adapt to new ways of working and delivering services.
UK health providers have demonstrated their resilience and shown they can cope with the immediate challenges ahead, as well as setting our health and social care sector up for a successful rebound post Covid-19.
But we need to learn from our successes and make sure that the great strides made in digital health are followed through.
The sector now needs to strike the careful balance of coping with the resurgence of Covid-19 cases while ensuring that organisations don’t slip backwards into old habits.
Now, more than ever, our health service needs to embrace digital transformation,
focusing on where the right IT infrastructure and digital solutions can provide revolutionary outcomes for organisations and the British public.
If we collectively achieve that, we’ll have a health service that can stand the test of time. One we can be proud of for many generations to come.