Opinion Article: Is the NHS Failing to Leverage Transformation from Technology?

SectraBy Dr. Adam Hill, Chief Medical Officer at Sectra.
The NHS spends significant sums on its valuable IT infrastructure. But despite this investment, our health service often fails to embrace the service redesign opportunities this technology presents, with major deployments still often layered onto existing services.

Redesigning services can dramatically improve care and save substantial amounts of money. Yet missed opportunities mean that we have under-utilised assets, and all this in an era of more for less.

The real opportunity to reshape the delivery of clinical services hand in hand with the deployment of IT programmes can be seen by taking a glance at the recent history of diagnostic services within the NHS. Radiology and pathology are both service delivery specialities within modern day medicine. Consultants from neither speciality have their name above a patient’s bed, but both are mission critical diagnostic specialities, and the bedrock upon which modern day healthcare is based.

One of these specialities has already managed to embrace technology at a remarkable pace. The other has very effectively embarked on service redesign. Yet neither has achieved both - something that must happen in future in order to maximise benefits for patients, enabling a shift to a new era in which cost-effective health outcomes are commissioned.

Radiology and pathology: Two sides of the diagnostic coin
Radiology has shifted to digital very rapidly in the NHS. The National Programme for IT (NPfIT) accelerated coverage of Picture Archiving and Communication Systems (PACS) to in excess of 95% within 18 months. Despite widely publicised criticism, NPfIT revolutionised the delivery of imaging diagnostic services in the UK. However, the potential to reduce inequality of care provision and improve cost effective outcomes have been less successfully realised, ultimately impacting upon professional working conditions.

Not only does service redesign impact the health of our population at risk, but it can have any number of indirect benefits. As just one example, it could mean freeing up and consolidating vastly under-utilised real estate in the NHS. Clinicians providing a diagnostic service with a digital workflow can arguably report from an office, a hot-desk reporting hub, from home or whilst on the move with equal fidelity. But radiology is yet to really harness this opportunity.

Pathology, in contrast, has undergone a significant service redesign following the Carter Review in 2008, focused on reducing costs by 20%. However, this diagnostic service has failed to realise the impact upon equality of outcomes and cost reduction that come with implementing a digital workflow, despite the widely held anticipation that pathology will soon be the next big digitisation in healthcare.

IT infrastructure deployment can re-vision service delivery
Embracing IT infrastructure at the same time as the service redesign opportunities that new deployments offer can unlock the potential to transition clinical care provision from centralised environments, through to decentralised models and distributed networks of care.

In diagnostic services, this would mean the ability to balance workloads across a region. It would give hospitals anywhere in a region the ability to access clinicians with the right skillsets to prepare a specimen, perform an examination, or report a finding.

Modern PACS systems are cross-enterprise document sharing, or XDS, enabled. They can allow federation of workflow across a region, something that has previously been balkanised by different PACS vendors. This workload balancing can allow hospitals to meet ever stringent service level agreements, whilst improving specialist job satisfaction.

Joining up tasks to join up care
Put simply the tasks of IT implementation and service redesign are currently decoupled. It is very infrequent that a hospital looks for IT to support a service transformation programme. It is equally rare that hospitals will use the deployment of an IT infrastructure project as an opportunity for service redesign to unlock efficiency savings.

We must now move away from a situation where IT is simply layered onto the existing healthcare service as a result of analysing current workflow to inform an IT architecture.

The focus must now be on the use of IT to support hospitals and the people within them, whether that is the clinician, the radiology service manager, the CEO, the chief financial officer, or the patient.

Innovators will embrace the opportunity to use IT to redesign healthcare, achieving affordable health outcomes today; the risk of being a late adopter is that cost efficiencies are not realised until much later, failing patients that can't wait for our health system to meet their needs tomorrow.

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