Helen Thomas is CEO of Digital Health and Care Wales, the special health authority supporting the digital transformation of NHS Wales. With digital technology playing an ever-increasing role in NHS Wales and a vital part of the Covid-19 recovery, Helen discusses what this means for the people of Wales and the future of our healthcare.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has certainly been overused throughout the pandemic, but when it comes to health and care, the impact of Covid-19 has been unparalleled. Over the last 18 months, the way that we access and deliver healthcare has completely transformed.

At the onset of the crisis, there was a rapid demand for digital technology to enable vital services to continue to run while reducing face-to-face contact. In Wales, one organisation has underpinned these digital efforts, enabling the Welsh NHS to continue running, adapt services and deliver its world-leading vaccine rollout.

Digital Health and Care Wales officially launched as a new special health authority in April 2021 as Wales emerged from a gruelling winter lockdown. Previously the NHS Wales Informatics Service, an organisation providing the technological infrastructure to enable patient care, the change reflects the increasingly important role of digital health and care at the forefront of NHS Wales.

As we emerge from the pandemic and begin recovering and rebuilding our healthcare services, it’s important to reflect on the instrumental role that digital services and technology played in our pandemic response and consider the role of digital healthcare in the future. There were more than 5,000 GP video consultations every week and a national contact tracing platform – the most successful in the UK – was designed, developed and rolled out by Digital Health and Care Wales, for the people of Wales.

Considering the successes and innovations can ultimately help us to develop digital healthcare services and technology fit for the future.

Building on existing digital services

At the onset of the first lockdown, as public health professionals were still learning about and assessing the risks posed by the Covid-19 virus, we turned to some of the existing digital services in NHS Wales to continue to support care provision under immense pressure. The Welsh Clinical Portal (WCP) is one such service. Developed in its first iteration in 2012, the system allows healthcare workers across Wales to access patient data, bringing together information from all Welsh health boards and trusts into a digital system that can be accessed on the go through its mobile app. The WCP stores more than 200 million test records for over 3 million people, including test results, images and scans, and is now used by more than 29,000 healthcare professionals across the NHS Wales. This kind of digital information sharing became even more necessary throughout the pandemic, as it allowed medical professionals to be equipped with all the information they needed, wherever they were working.

Another platform, Choose Pharmacy, enables community pharmacists to keep a record for each patient, allowing them to support people with health conditions or even dispense emergency medications. This capability became more important through the pandemic, as pharmacies kept their doors open to patients while many GP practices delivered more services remotely. Local pharmacies have continued to play a vital role in delivering care during the pandemic, providing advice and maintaining essential services in the community all while under enormous pressures.

These services were able to adapt as the pandemic developed and became instrumental in supporting the NHS to respond to COVID-19, as healthcare professionals and patients depended more than ever on digital services.

Developing new services to support pandemic response

As we grew to understand the virus, new services were required to facilitate crucial responses like testing, contact tracing and ultimately, vaccine rollout. The Digital Health and Care Wales team rapidly responded to design, develop, and deliver these services across Wales.

In the early months of the pandemic, the team developed the infrastructure used in testing centres to improve testing capacity, as well as the software needed for labs to safely receive swab samples. A new application was also initially created to allow antibody testing data to be received and recorded.

Now, Wales is renowned for its world-leading vaccination programme. At 75% of the population having received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to date, the UK is the second most vaccinated country in the world behind Canada. And Wales is leading the UK nations with 73% of the total population having received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 67% having received their second dose. Invitations are now also being sent out to 16 and 17-year-olds for their first dose of the vaccine*.

Underpinning this success is the Welsh Immunisation System, the digital system launched in December 2020 for creating, scheduling and recording vaccination appointments, allowing vaccinations to be delivered as effectively as possible.

The Digital Health and Care Wales team has also been working on data sharing arrangements between England and Wales to supply the information needed for the NHS COVID pass, allowing those travelling abroad to demonstrate their vaccination status.

The next steps for digital healthcare in Wales

As we move forward, the role of digital health and care in Wales’ NHS will remain equally important, to the recovery of our health services, to the expansion and improvement of existing services and the development of new ones.

One key priority for Digital Health and Care Wales will be onboarding cancer services to the Single Record (Welsh Clinical Portal). Other priorities are supporting the referrals process in eye care and using digital to improve e-prescribing.

The pandemic has also sparked a new public awareness of and interest in the importance of data, with daily coronavirus figures and analysis dominating headlines. DHCW’s existing Welsh Data Hub is a single point of access for health and care intelligence products and data, and the Covid-19 Data Hub was created to provide timely data and information in one central source, enabling the NHS to understand and predict demand.

It is part of our long-term strategy for health and social care in Wales to deliver more, accessible digital solutions to empower patients and the public to take an active role in managing their own health, and this goal has only been strengthened by the pandemic. Building on this, NHS Wales is developing a new platform that will allow people to choose the healthcare services they want to use via an app from their mobile device, making support more accessible than ever before.

It’s clear that digital information and technology has played an instrumental role in enabling the safe and continued running of Welsh health services, and the development of new infrastructure to respond to the demands of the pandemic. As we recover and plan for the future, we must continue to make sure that digital is at the heart of our NHS and take advantage of opportunities for digital transformation in health and care.

*figure correct as of August 2021