Innovative technology procurement has a ‘critical’ role to play in patient care, says Stuart Watkins. At Crown Commercial Service, he has helped develop a step-by-step guide to buying digital transformation solutions in the NHS, with the aim of improving outcomes for patients and taxpayers.
Stuart Watkins started his career as an analyst programmer, writing code with pen and paper. He has loved being part of an era of immense, technological change. “How things have moved on! That’s why I like technology procurement – the infinite applications and constant supplier innovation.”
As strategy manager for health at Crown Commercial Service (CCS), the UK’s biggest public procurement organisation, he leads the health vertical for technology and workforce strategy, providing the NHS with value for money buying solutions and expert knowledge.
He brought to CCS, when he joined in 2019, more than two decades’ experience as both a buyer and supplier of goods and services to the NHS. He has no doubt that innovative technology procurement in the NHS is “critical” to its ability to improve patient care. “At CCS we are well aware of this and are working closely with NHS England to ensure that our tech category strategies deliver the innovation they need now and in the future.”
Technology procurement in the NHS is becoming increasingly important, he points out, touching on everything from network refreshes to artificial intelligence, virtual wards and patient self-referral.
“How, where, and when patient care is given is changing,” says Watkins. “There’s a natural evolution towards smart healthcare services, where technology is embedded across clinical pathways and the digital patient is the new normal. It’s vital that our NHS health services, staff and patients are ready for this.
“Health organisations, at whatever stage of their smart healthcare journey, require a robust technology procurement strategy that builds close collaboration between their procurement and ICT functions.
“They also need to achieve value for money through their procurements, delivering against clear integrated care system requirements and cost improvement programmes – all while keeping social value and carbon net zero agendas front of mind.”
To help the NHS meet these objectives for procurements, Watkins and colleagues at CCS have developed a new step-by-step guide, setting out the three main stages of buying digital transformation solutions in the NHS, with a clear breakdown of programme stages and projects along the way.
Aimed at clinicians, ICT professionals, procurement professionals, CEOs and board executives, the CCS guide supports NHS England’s ‘digital first’ guidance and makes a process that can all too easily go wrong “straightforward”.
“Inefficiency sets in with digital programmes when robust project management methodologies such as PRINCE2 (the UK’s government standard for ICT projects) are not applied,” says Watkins. “That is why the guide is set out as a comprehensive programme of projects, making it straightforward for the NHS ICT functions to assimilate into their own ‘live’ digital programmes today.”
The guide – organised around three key phrases of digital transformation (Prepare, Transform, Enhance) over a five-year plan – applies to NHS trusts and ICS digital programmes, where there is “a huge opportunity to rationalise suppliers, save money, secure value and ensure interoperability requirements are met”.
The first step, (in Year 1) is to develop a technology strategy that aligns with the trust’s organisational development plan and its intended outcomes. “From here, you can develop your programme, create your design and delivery structure, prepare outline and full business cases, and allocate budgets,” says Watkins.
Next, it is important to review existing assets with the aim of getting the “maximum value from what you already have”. “Where do you need to refresh your core infrastructure and networks? How can unified communications bring together phone, email and instant messaging to complement each other and encourage collaboration?” This is also the stage to consider how devices, applications and databases will be rolled out and managed, and how cyber security requirements can be met, he adds.
The ‘transform’ stage (in Years 2 and 3) invites users to consider how best to digitise patient records: these can be integrated into software and clinical systems, facilitating the delivery and receipt of patient data digitally at the point of service. “If you need to scan historic paper records, consider what further processes and resources are required,” suggests Watkins. “You’ll need a validation process to check that scanned documents match the original paper versions and create new workflows to ensure they are available securely.”
Smart technologies can also be deployed to enable patient participation and empowerment throughout their clinical pathways. “You could integrate systems such as picture archiving and communication (PACS), radiology, pathology, pharmacy, and bedside monitoring, focusing on interconnection and sharing of data, using unified messaging standards such as Health Level Seven,” says Watkins.
This is a good time to review data warehousing and look at how a central data store could improve reporting and analysis. “You should also build integration into your solutions, considering how you can extend use securely to other organisations such as primary, acute, mental health, and social services.”
In the ‘enhance’ stage (Year 5) of the digital transformation process, the focus should be on early intervention and prevention initiatives, in partnership with other healthcare providers in the integrated care system. Everyone involved in the technology procurement should be thinking about people, not tech. “At this stage, you should be aiming to put the digital patient at the heart of everything you do,” says Watkins.
Smart “champions” who take ownership of the process can help keep the focus on the people who are supposed to benefit from the transformation, while training providers can create bespoke training programmes that empower users and tackle change resistance.
“You may even want to consider how apps could help improve the patient experience and provide easy access to clinical services.”
The guide suggests that the “enthusiasm” of patients who are already using smart technologies to manage their health can be utilised to encourage widespread change. But it also emphasises the importance of ensuring that digital healthcare solutions are inclusive and accessible to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people.
“There is danger in assuming that all patients and their carers have the necessary digital skills to benefit from new digital healthcare services. This is not always the case,” says Watkins. “We must therefore consider how we provide support to anyone who cannot access digital services independently, helping them to find information and complete transactions.
“Finally, we must ensure digital inclusion by helping patients and their carers gain basic digital skills so that they can access these digital services in order to benefit from better healthcare.”
Find out more
Crown Commercial Service has developed a free, easy to use guide to digital transformation in the NHS. Find out more and download the guide from the CCS Website.
Contact Crown Commercial Service:
Telephone: 0345 410 2222