From an early age, Mark Thomas had his sights set on becoming a high-flyer like his father. “After all, not everyone can boast to their classmates that dad’s busy building a medium-range ballistic missile,” he says.

The project in question was Blue Streak, forerunner of the Ariane space rocket, which was originally designed to replace the V bomber fleet with an independent British nuclear deterrent, but later became the first stage of the Europa satellite launch vehicle.

“In 1972, a change of test sites meant that, virtually overnight, we swapped the scorching climate of Woomera, Australia for chilly Spadeadam in Cumbria – the county that would become my home right up to this day.”

On leaving school in 1977, the teenage Thomas took his first steps into the public sector as a trainee accountant with the North West Electricity Board (subsequently Norweb; now Electricity North West).

“I quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a bean counter,” he says. “But I somehow managed to persuade management to let me switch to a technical job.

“For the next 13 years, I became an electrical engineer, working predominantly in the electronics field. This involved installing some of the first digital microwave communications rings across Cumbria to move telemetry information around electricity usage.

“Norweb was among the first energy providers to develop private switched telephone and data networks. It was really the start of using computers to gather information that would ensure the continuous supply of electricity – and boost income post-privatisation.”

The brave new world of computing

With valuable experience in the burgeoning field of information technology under his belt, Thomas next jumped at the chance of joining an integrated office project to ‘computerise’ Carlisle City Council. There, his talents soon came to the notice of Cumbria County Council, which eventually recruited him to head up software development.

By now, Thomas says a recurring feature was already emerging in his career path: the ability to quickly identify the needs of customers and to manage their expectations by maximising service delivery.

“My jobs thus far had given me a valuable insight into how software is developed, plus an understanding of the business cycle – all of which has proved invaluable in later life when procuring software and systems,” he says.

Next followed a six-year spell as information systems manager for Cumbria Social Services where, once again, Thomas says the drivers were all about client care.

“The job was about providing better information directly to front-line social workers in both adult and children’s services – enabling them to provide best care packages to the citizens they supported.

“The more information we could make available to them, the more efficient service they were able to provide. At that time, an hour of home care cost around £10.50, so by saving multiples of £10.50, we were able to give many hours of care back to those who most needed it.”

Rising to the position of deputy head of ICT and programme manager at the County Council, he says the next couple of years involved working at corporate level to improve public services via IT outsourcing projects – for example, in road maintenance, as well as payroll and back-office functions.

The switch to healthcare

Thomas’ move into the healthcare arena finally came in 2008 with his appointment as head of informatics at North Cumbria University Hospitals; this was followed 12 months later by promotion to director of IM&T. “My task at this time was to drive a transformational programme to improve patient care and access to clinical information using intelligence led systems.

“Known internally as ForWard, this programme fundamentally changed how the wards, ward staff and clinicians operated by providing the necessary information to manage the patient pathway in real-time from any location,” he says.

“It resulted in a significant return on investment through efficiency gains mapped against a benefit realisation tracker process.”

Following his appointment as director of health informatics at Northumbria Healthcare Trust in April 2012, Thomas began developing a three-year strategy and operational plans to directly support the integration of hospital, community and home services – underpinned by the vision of delivering an integrated electronic patient record available at the point of care.

In the drive to remove the boundaries between healthcare organisations, he says the key word – and one which is frequently understated – is ‘integrated’.

“Like most trusts, we’re committed to improving our digital maturity by introducing an EPR. Without proper integration, however, we’ll simply be building a fantastic internally working product; one that isn’t truly patient-focused unless it’s continually gathering information from right across their care pathway.”

Collaboration without walls

Moreover, he says technology should always be secondary. “Our starting point must always be at the front-end, which means working closely with clinical colleagues. At Northumbria, we’re working with everyone – in acute, community and adult care services, plus those in primary care – to ensure a seamless patient journey.

“It’s essential that we all look outside of our own organisations, because each of us is only one part of the system. In other words, what we need is collaboration without walls; we’re all going in the same direction, so it’s vital that we communicate.

“At the end of the day, our job as healthcare IT specialists is to use technology to add value for clinicians right at the point of care; otherwise, every extra step they have to make – be they a consultant, junior doctor or nurse – is a moment where they are not delivering care.”

As well as overseeing the implementation of a Silverlink patient administration system at Northumbria, Thomas has so far been instrumental in introducing trust-wide data standards to ensure all aspects of patient activity are coded accurately.

He says these standards go beyond the national requirements and play a critical role in ensuring appropriate patient care. “High quality data is a vital part of delivering safe, high quality patient care and we place great emphasis on ensuring we capture robust data in order to continually review and improve our services for patients.”

Finding solutions to problems

While his career path to date has been diverse, Thomas says his training as an engineer provides a common thread.

“Engineers look for solutions to problems; at Norweb, it was about ensuring continuity of supply, with the customer right at the centre; at Carlisle City Council, it was about replacing outdated processes with modern working practices to the benefit of citizens; in social care, it was about making information available to social workers to ensure clients receive best possible care.

“I’ve now carried this through into healthcare, which is a wonderful place to work,” he says. “Here, it’s about matching what clinicians need to deliver excellence of care to patients at any given time. That way, they can continue delivering lots of little miracles every day by taking people into care and helping to improve their health.”

Thomas expects to be kept extremely busy in the coming months; a new specialist emergency care hospital supported by clinical information without boundaries is due to open next summer at Cramlington. Meanwhile, he and his team will continue to provide IT support to North Cumbria University Hospitals Trust which is in special measures and currently being acquired by the Northumbria trust.

In addition to his day job – as if this weren’t already enough for one individual – Thomas is chair of the North East Health CIO Network, which focuses on integration and collaboration between the 12 trusts in the region. He says the group is currently driving forward two key initiatives:

  • A single electronic discharge summary to support colleagues in primary care, so that they only have to deal with one form of discharge summary – a task which Thomas describes as “no mean feat”   
  • A collaboratively procured integrated network – enabling trusts across the North East and North West to communicate seamlessly as a collective across the Public Services Network.

“Initiatives such as these will enable us to begin breaking down the barriers which currently prevent information flows between organisations,” he adds.

Away from work, Thomas says he and his wife – a primary care practice manager in West Cumbria – like nothing better than to mess about in boats. “It provides the perfect escape from our hectic working lives, which are always highly rewarding, yet rarely plain sailing,” he concludes.

Fact box
Name: Mark Thomas
Job title: Director of health informatics, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
Time in current role: Two years
Key project: Implementation of a Silverlink patient administration system
Favourite technology: Foil sails that allow boats to travel at up to three times the speed of the wind
Best thing about job: “The satisfaction in helping ensure that clinicians can perform lots of little miracles every day”
Worst thing about job: “Constantly worrying in case clinicians don’t have all of the available information about a patient at the point of care.”

 

Mark Thomas is  chair of the North East Health CIO Network; which has joined the Health CIO Network created by EHI. The new network of networks aims to support chief information officers and other senior information leaders, and to enable them to exchange ideas and best practice. For more information, visit the dedicated Health CIO Network pages