Digital transformation of the health service will only be successful if innovators feel free to experiment and those who control budgets are realistic about the timeline for change, speakers told the King’s Fund conference “Digital technologies: innovating for change,” on Tuesday. 

System chief clinical information officer and Digital Health Summer Schools 2022 speaker Sonia Patel and Fiona Edwards, chief executive of Frimley Health and Care ICS, said the difficulties of innovating in the risk-averse culture of the NHS were compounded by concerns over the use of taxpayer money and the pressure to achieve rapid results.   

“When you talk about digital improvement, everyone wants 100% certainty, but we need to make it clear that some things will work and some things won’t,” Patel said. 

The need to show that the NHS is delivering puts the burden on innovation teams to have an evidence-based outcome in a short period of time, Edwards said.

Innovators need to work to build the space to encourage learning and establish trust in order to establish long-term change, rather than imposing top-down solutions, she observed, adding, “it can be really tough to withstand that level of scrutiny and transform very quickly.” 

Virtual wards and Artificial intelligence (AI) were two areas where the importance of experimentation was highlighted in break-out sessions at the conference.

Gorana Kovacevic, a consultant in infectious diseases and acute medicine at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, shared her experience with improving patient experiences with virtual wards.

She described a trial-and-error process that had enabled her to learn what works best for her patients at home and helps them to reduce deconditioning.  

“There are lot of resources to support virtual wards,” she told attendees, adding that online solutions such as the Health Equity Assessment Tool (HEAT) and other platforms able to run on tablet devices can provide support to patients with language or other barriers, while Age UK and other charities might be able to provide volunteers to help with monitoring and medications. 

In the case of AI, Haris Shuaib, consultant clinical scientist and head of clinical computing at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s NHS Foundation, and AI transformation lead at London Medical Imaging and Artificial Intelligence Centre for Value Based Healthcare, told a break-out session that developing AI strategies should be the final step for health organisations, following the launch of pilot projects, construction of in-house AI teams and training staff in AI literacy and project delivery.