“Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and change.”

This was the message Aaron Powell, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at NHS Blood and Transplant had for healthcare decision-makers when quizzed on the digitisation of the NHS. 

Speaking to Digital Health News at the Microsoft Future Decoded event in London recently, Powell suggested that a bolder approach to new technologies was key to pulling the NHS into the modern age. This includes breaking the fixation on bottom-line cost reductions, an unsettling concept for many amidst the penny-pinching fiscal climate.

“Whilst new technologies might not necessarily result in reduced cost, there are a whole host of other drivers around the adoption of new technology from a healthcare perspective,” said Powell.

“We’ve seen that technology can drive better patients across the board, whether that’s through new innovations like the ability to recognise features of scans using artificial intelligence, or simply joining up the data we have in the healthcare system better and being able to generate new insights.

“For all those reasons there’s a good case to be investing in technology, irrespective of whether or not it actually reduces the cost at the bottom line.”

This boldness has proved a success for NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), which hinges on the Microsoft Azure cloud service, the platform that hosts NHSBT’s donor registrations and management portal as well as orders and distributes blood throughout NHS hospitals.

More than one million blood donors now use NHSBT’s blood donor portal, with around 139,000 appointments being booked through it every month. Yet despite its success with both donors and clinicians, Powell conceded that financial returns have not been radical.

“In numbers terms, I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen a significant cost-saving from using the cloud – you’d probably find somewhere between 10 and 20%. Which isn’t insignificant, but it’s not revolutionary.”

“What we have seen is a much more reliable system that we can have confidence in, and a system that is scalable that allows us to respond to peaks in activity, whilst freeing up our staff to focus on what NHSBT is really there to do.”

Frugality is not the only cause for resistance at board-level. As Powell explained, much of it comes from an unfamiliarity of the new, not to mention barriers put up by organisational red tape.

“Push-back comes from a number of reasons. Some of it, is about wanting return on investment, some of it comes from concerns about regulatory compliance, and some of it comes from simply the comfort that people have in being able to look at their own computers and know where things are running, as opposed to having to trust in the virtual world where the computers are being managed.”

What Powell describes is a common concern with cloud technology. While many of its benefits are well-documented – reducing hardware overheads, promoting interoperability and data-sharing, for example – some still regard the cloud with a wary eye when the topic of security arises.

Part of overcoming this hurdle is education, and leading by way of example. “We do spend time talking to our colleagues explaining what we’ve done,” said Powell. “We try to encourage innovation.”

Digital Health News dropped by the NHSBT stand during Microsoft Future Decoded.

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean throwing money at whatever new technological craze is currently in the headlines. For Powell, a much more meaningful use of resources is building on the ability for clinicians to easily access and share data already in their possession.

“My sense of what the NHS is crying out for is a better way of sharing information. Sharing information securely, sharing information to enable clinicians to do a better job, but also of maintaining confidence on the part of patients that their information is being used appropriately,” Powell said.

“Broadly, our digital strategy is focused on two key themes: personalisation and connectedness – the idea that if we connect the data and the processes and the systems both across NHSBT but also out into the wider NHS, then we’re able to deliver new and different services.

“As we design those services, we can deliver them in a more personalised way, because that’s what people are looking for.”

Following the failed NHS National Programme for IT, there has been an air of confusion and uncertainty about exactly what role technology should play in the future of Britain’s health service.

But Powell suggested the healthcare industry has everything to gain from being more receptive to new innovations. He highlights the machine learning and intelligence space in particular, which he believes will “fundamentally change healthcare.”

As an example, Powell explained that NHSBT is currently looking at how it can offer more accurate and personalised predictions of how long an individual patient might wait for an organ transplant.

“We have general predictions – we can say that on average, people wait ‘X’ about of time for this organ. But the more we can understand the data and their specific characteristics and the characteristics of the donor we are seeing, we can develop much for personalised predictions.”

“I think predictive healthcare…will absolutely give insights to clinicians to enable them to do their jobs better.”

Asked what message he would give healthcare IT decision-makers, Powell offered the following: “Embrace technology, don’t fear it. Be prepared to think differently – about what you could do if technology really connected your organisation better with your customers. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and change.”