With the NHS approaching its 73rd birthday, Satpal Biant, head of public sector at SAP, explores what should be the health service’s top tech priorities.
Next July the NHS will celebrate its 73rd birthday. Further distribution of Covid-19 vaccines will make it a less gloomy occasion than last year’s, but there can be no doubt that the forces unleashed by the pandemic – most importantly digitalisation – will continue to reshape the institution.
Digitalisation is causing upheaval across society – from videoconferencing disrupting traditional ways of working to the rise of dark kitchens in hospitality and the boom of ecommerce overtaking high street shops. And as identified by the 2020/21 NHS People Plan, this digital disruption has gone right to the heart of the NHS as well.
The impact of the disruption will last beyond the pandemic. Of course, digitalising an institution like the NHS is even more difficult than a retail chain. The past year has shaken the healthcare sector – but 2021 will be the year in which the NHS can regroup, adapt, and plot a path to the future. To get there I believe there are three key technological priorities the NHS should focus on for the next 12 months – coordination and interoperability; cybersecurity; and innovation and intelligent automation.
Coordination and interoperability
The NHS employs 1.3 million members of staff – making it the UK’s largest employer, and one of the largest employers in the world. Its immense scale and segmented structure makes coordinating resources difficult.
A consequence of providing such a range of services over so many regions, is that over the years the organisation has splintered – and so has its technology. Outdated legacy IT and more modern technology is therefore siloed and unable to interact. This was one of the most important findings of last year’s House of Commons Public Account Committee report, ‘Digital Transformation in the NHS’, which concluded that the lack of interoperability and limited capacity for information sharing across the NHS are two of the biggest challenges to its digital transformation. With critical information stored across unconnected servers, clinical systems and databases, tracking the patient journey across different departments of the NHS is incredibly complicated, hampering its ability to drive efficiencies across the organisation and streamline patient care.
Tackling this lack of coordination and encouraging greater interoperability should therefore be a major priority for the NHS in 2021.
Migrating parts of IT infrastructure to the cloud can be an important practical step towards doing this. Data stored on the cloud can be managed and shared more easily, making coordination easier. This should ease supply chain and procurement inefficiencies, and data derived from digital services can offer leaders greater insight into collaboration.
Cloud can also offer the NHS more computational power than on-premises IT. Such a massive organisation inevitably generates vast quantities of data, and as healthcare is increasingly digitalised, more and more will need to be verified, stored, managed, and analysed. Investing in cloud adoption in 2021 will mean the NHS doesn’t have to play catch-up in the future.
Better coordination and more interoperable data sets will have real-life impacts on patient outcomes. Hospitals or departments will be able to share health records with less friction, for instance. And when it comes to national health issues like Covid-19, obesity, or Alzheimer’s, having access to deep and broad data pools could be game-changing. It should also make workforce planning and management simpler, meaning healthcare workers can do their job more effectively.
We witnessed a spate of nation-state cyberattacks at the close of 2020, highlighting the growing threat of cybercrime for public and private organisations. While only the biggest and most successful breaches make headline news, attempts are far more frequent.
As our healthcare system becomes more reliant upon a digital foundation, the NHS must ensure it’s protected from cyberthreats.
A robust security system should feature reliable backup storage to prevent data loss and ransomware, in addition to redundant server infrastructure – distributed data centres that ensure both data and services are available to customers even if one data centre fails. Cloud services can also help shore up the NHS’s security as cloud security can be updated regularly with full adoption from all connected devices, preventing blind spots.
Encryption is also vital. At a fundamental level, encryption simply makes data unusable for those who do not have verified access, so it should be the bedrock of any organisation’s data security capabilities. Multi-factor authentication is another important security tool that reduces the risk of breaches using stolen or lost devices.
Innovation and intelligent automation
As Covid-19 will continue to be a threat in 2021, the NHS must be ready to adapt to innovations quickly, and indeed innovate itself in response to crises. As such, decision-makers should prioritise this as a key organisational outcome in 2021.
Applications and digital health solutions will need to be made faster, updated more regularly, and distributed more quickly in 2021. The best way to do this is to build these applications and solutions using a secure cloud platform. These can then be scaled and distributed across the NHS’s many regional arms.
Another area in which innovation will be particularly key is intelligent automation. Automation can bring massive efficiency benefits while freeing up staff to do more rewarding, high-value tasks. The private sector is coming on leaps and bounds in this regard, by ensuring intelligent automation of business processes from the back office to the front office and reaping the benefit. The NHS is making some progress, but with a staff of over a million and budgets stretched, applying intelligent automation to core clinical processes where possible should be a top priority.
An opportunity for renewal
Prioritising the technology outlined above would be a positive step forward – but the NHS must go further. As the Public Account Committee’s 2020 report identified, “clear and transparent” governance arrangements are vital for real long-term success. In the past, implementation plans have been convoluted and opaque – blocking innovative private sector solutions and obscuring the procurement process, to the detriment of the government, private companies and the public.
NHS leaders must take this opportunity to layout implementation plans with rigorous success metrics in place and accountability for decision-makers built-in. The private sector should be embraced for the value it can add from the get-go, and decision-makers should consult the public on their needs.
2021 is an opportunity for renewal – not simply in terms of the technology used by the NHS, but in a broader sense. It can be the year NHS decision-makers embark on a truly long-term strategic plan. By doing so, the NHS will be in a strong position for many years to come.