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While COVID-19 has accelerated the move to digitise healthcare, there remain gaps in processes and systems that need addressing.

Back in 2013, the NHS dipped its toe in the waters of digitisation with the ill-fated – an initiative to take health records online.

Less than half a decade later, things couldn’t be more different. Not only are we interacting with GPs online; tech is modelling resource demand; blockchain is tracking blood donations; and apps are helping us manage health at home.

“COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technology,” confirms Dr Sarah Pinto-Duschinsky, Partner and Consulting Leader in Health Sciences and Wellness at EY.

Are we ready for more automation?

Nationally, we’ve seen big tech companies help health chiefs model demand for resources and personnel throughout the pandemic.

More locally, individual trusts have adopted automated systems to manage things such as communication and staffing banks. Even the most remote GP surgery has had to move online.

The big question is whether the broader digital ecosystem is ready for us to build on our COVID-19 learnings.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to see greater standardisation of things like patient management, but over-focussing on the foundations will delay benefits that are available now,” says Simon Constance, Partner Lead of Alliances and Emerging Technology at EY.

“I look across our work in Europe and can see these blossomings– patient contact systems that are completely automated from a clinician decision, through to patient scheduling contact on a mobile phone. The question is how we can take the seeds and get them to grow everywhere,” he says.

Digital healthcare is an adjunct; it’s not a substitute for human care. We need to find the right balance.

System compatibility is key

Health tech companies were some of the leading lights in the government’s Tech Nation Report, but accelerating the adoption of services is reliant on a number of things.

“Horizon scanning and looking into the technology and digital innovation space isn’t something that the NHS is desperately practised at,” points out Pinto-Duschinsky.

“You’ve got things that are great right now, but how do you also have in your mind what’s going to be great further down the road?”

Where we’ve fallen down in the past is in the issue of interconnectability. It’s critical that the different systems integrate with ease.

“The corner stone of the hospital’s technology platforms is their EPR [Electronic Patient Record] system and if it’s not allowing you to be multi-vendor, it’s not in the right decade,” says Pinto-Duschinsky. “In all other parts of our digital lives we’re talking about digital ecosystems that use multiple vendors.”

Learning from business

Healthcare can certainly learn from other sectors – and not just about integration of systems.

It remains somewhat of a misnomer that, while it’s probably the single most revered institution in the country, when it comes to passing over our data to the NHS, we feel uncomfortable.

There is a lot of ‘talk’ about giving patients more control of their data, but do any of us really know what that means? Constance believes that the changes we’ve witnessed in the banking sector can help us move forward.

“They’ve revolutionised or extended access to digital services to people in older age groups who were far less used to using an app on their phone,” he says.

Mental health of staff

Beyond the improved efficiency and patient outcomes, digital services also have an important role to play in the mental wellbeing of our healthcare staff.

Digital wellbeing apps and tools to monitor staff hours and stress are nothing new. Pinto-Duschinsky believes that tech can further support staff by providing a confidential outlet to share their experiences and to aid learning and development.

But there remains a limit to what devices can do.

“What everyone has missed throughout the pandemic is physical contact,” concludes Pinto-Duschinsky. “Digital healthcare is an adjunct; it’s not a substitute for human care. We need to find the right balance.”

It looks like we’ll all be interacting with health services from the comfort of our own homes in the future. But even a hospital without walls still needs a beating human heart.

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