Whether you like it or not, technology is here to stay and is ingrained in most people’s everyday lives though some believe healthcare is lagging behind. Dr Lydia Yarlott, NHS Paediatrician and co-founder of messaging app, Forward Health, delves into why she believes a lack of technology might be pushing young doctors away.
It was announced recently that an extra 5,000 trainee medics will be needed each year to make up the current shortfall in the NHS workforce, and that’s before we consider the impact Brexit will have.
The number of psychiatrist vacancies has doubled in six years. GPs, the first line of defence for our under-pressure health service, are in desperately short supply.
Astonishingly, the number of junior doctors leaving the profession after just two years in practise is now greater than those who stay. Recently we heard that clinicians are being encouraged to ‘ration’ referrals to specialists in order to minimise strain on services.
As a clinician, this makes me feel incredibly sad. People who train as doctors and nurses didn’t choose to do so lightly; they knew they faced a lengthy, expensive degree, followed by a long postgraduate training process, working in a chronically under-resourced environment dealing with some of the most difficult situations imaginable.
As a result, people who work for the NHS tend to be the most steadfast champions of what it stands for, because they have undergone significant personal sacrifices to get there. Almost without exception, frontline NHS staff care deeply about delivering brilliant care for the patients they look after – and that’s why I love my clinical job.
On the other hand, I haven’t met anyone who has left healthcare without turning themselves inside out emotionally, because as well as being a vocation, caring for other people is a form of identity.
Too late to act?
Doctors don’t turn their back on the NHS with a spring in their step; they do so with regret and resentment at a system that they could no longer function in, saying goodbye to a job they had wanted for years.
Recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges faced by healthcare, and given the lag time on producing new doctors, it’s imperative we look after the ones we already have.
It’s certainly not too late to act, because we still have an impressive, dedicated workforce who want to believe that things can be different.
It’s my belief that we are capable of creating institutions in which they can flourish, but we need to be inventive and look to other sectors for inspiration. We need to think carefully about what the next generation of healthcare professionals are going to need from their careers and workplaces, to ensure that the NHS continues to attract and retain the very best.
Digital native newbies
One thing’s for sure, the cohort of would-be medics currently choosing their A level subjects grew up as digital natives, and they probably aren’t going to enjoy working a landscape of pagers, fax machines, and Windows XP.
Whilst I can remember dial-up internet, the heady excitement of MSN messenger, and the beauty of playing snake of a Nokia 3310, those who will be caring for us in the coming years will be the children of an on-demand, touch-screen, HD reality.
Simon Eccles, the CCIO for health and social care, summed it up well during the recent NHS Expo when he said the institution was “living in the dark ages” when it comes to digitisation; that’s hardly an advertisement to aspiring healthcare professionals.
Even if they get through the training, poor technology can make even the most committed lose the will to stay in the system.
The good news is, the changes that are needed aren’t huge, but small and multiple. Scrapping faxes and landlines in favour of app-based clinical communication would speed up the delivery of care and save crucial amounts of time.
Moving from paper-based updates to emails would help patients get the information they need as soon as it’s available.
Swapping cumbersome desktops powered by out-of-date software for mobile systems built with ward staff in mind would allow for real-time, flexible record keeping that benefits patients and staff alike.
Getting tech universal
This technology exists, but it’s not universally taken up, and hospitals and clinics have a tendency to take different routes to digitisation, meaning ultimately, a lack of clinical collaboration as a result of poor interoperability.
There’s nothing ground-breaking about improving communication, but the effects on frontline staff can be huge in terms of efficiency and morale. If your workplace doesn’t provide you with the tools you need to get the best outcome for your patients, you’re not going to feel empowered or valued, two of the fundamental components of overall job satisfaction.
When, and only when, we get the fundamental infrastructure right, will we be able to leverage the potential that artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analysis have to improve population and individual health.
The time for evolution
The doctors of the future will, understandably, be ever more impatient to implement these cutting-edge tools for the benefit of the patients they look after.
If we worked harder on building the foundations to make this future possible, we would be on course to become a leading force in the global healthcare revolution, and an institution that clinicians from all over the world could feel proud to work in.
It’s important to remember how unique UK healthcare is; the NHS delivers world class treatment free at the point of care, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be an aspirational and trailblazing institution.
Meanwhile, smarter systems, simpler ways of communicating with colleagues, and freedom from admin, these are fundamental things we must address in our quest to create an NHS fit for the next generation.
We cannot expect our doctors and nurses to have to battle against archaic systems over the course of a career spanning several decades.
The time for evolution is now, before the next cohort of talented clinicians are left disenchanted by a health system set out to help.