Research from BT suggests that almost half of NHS staff find digital technology a key source of stress. A new focus on user experience is essential to digital transformation, writes Mateen Jiwani

The NHS wants to digitally enhance processes to support and empower its people and futureproof health services. Changes are poised to unlock valuable resources and drive meaningful improvements in patient care.

Unfortunately, only 20% of NHS organisations are considered digitally mature; to address this, the NHS has ambitions for the majority of health and social care services to have digital foundations in place by 2025. Buy-in to these digital transformation projects is essential for achieving the NHS’s long-term goals.

Eliminating legacy-based systems which are no longer fit for purpose and resolving ongoing connectivity issues would streamline communications. This would also help address long waiting times, delays and missed appointments which are a huge drain on resources and have a negative impact on both staff and patient experience.

Tech’s Achilles heel

Staff just want tech that works, but the Achilles heel of technological innovation is its failure to deliver its full potential as a functional and clinically practical service. New research from BT, conducted with NHS staff, shows technology used to enhance processes does not always deliver a seamless user experience in practice. Almost half (49%) of NHS staff report the standard of technology is a key source of stress, and 42% report staffing levels and burnout as the biggest barriers to digital transformation outside of funding.

Unsurprisingly, poor user experience can catalyse resistance to further innovation. Technological adoption is not just about its implementation. In an already highly stressful and dynamic environment, there must be a faster-paced approach that considers the experience and needs of those on the front line.

Turning desire into action

To reap the full potential of digital transformation, staff must buy into the opportunities on offer through innovation. Unfortunately, the healthcare sector is embedded with legacy infrastructures incompatible with new software services, heightening frustration for workers. Nearly 60% of workers cite difficulties implementing new technology with existing systems, with stress associated with difficulties around accessibility, interoperability, and usage time, rather than the new technology itself.

To tackle this, technology products and services must be intrinsically linked to solving staff concerns. For an already stretched workforce, accessibility and time are two pressurising issues; they need to be addressed to make transformation projects successful, satisfy clinicians and bolster appetites for ongoing digital innovation. There must be some understanding of how systems talk to each other and allow exchange of useful information.

Technology is widely seen as important for addressing staff shortages, with 74% of respondents to the BT survey requesting more investment in new technological solutions to help attract new staff. Similarly, 83% think it can help to attract a younger workforce from digitally native generations. Ultimately, healthcare staff are willing to embrace new innovations if it provides a tangible outcome and works in a simple way, meeting their needs and requirements.

Involving end users in the design process ensures technology is fit for purpose, user-friendly, and effective in improving outcomes. Co-design should be a familiar concept in the NHS: [in digital] it enhances  uptake and empowers workers by giving them a voice to shape the tools they use to deliver services, tailored to their unique needs and challenges. A more dynamic and collaborative approach to technology adoption will drive innovation, improve productivity, and deliver better outcomes for staff and patients alike.

Adapt or fall behind

The relationship between staff availability and technology is complex and dynamic. NHS staff are flexible and adaptable, shifting in response to changing pressure points to provide high-quality patient care. Technology must mirror this agility, working as a collaboration tool to support front line workers when the pressure is on.

However, if you ask already stressed staff to work with new rigid technology that doesn’t improve their roles, it becomes just another issue for them to manage. This can lead to frustration, bypassing of the innovation and, ultimately, a failure to properly implement it.

More than half of NHS staff (58%) say the adoption of innovation is halted by a lack of change management capabilities in their organisation. Training is not always implemented successfully, with messaging about new technology only intermittently effective. In turn, workers respond by finding ways to work around new software services that are unhelpful and unintuitive.

Training requires adaptations to environments and use cases and should often be led by clinicians. Rather than circumstances adapted to meet technology’s requirements, technology should be developed to fit circumstances, tailored to clinicians’ specific needs and workflows. Training also needs to be relevant and focused for the professional.

Thoughtful innovation

Most importantly, NHS staffing priorities lie in delivering better health and patient outcomes: technology must be tethered to this end. It must be introduced thoughtfully, with consideration given to the unique needs of each healthcare provider and their patients. It is also important to keep in mind clinical governance and patient safety. In the early phases of a technology’s introduction, there may be a need for academic support for research to aid understanding its use and success.

To achieve positive outcomes, we must respond to end-user experiences and expectations, engaging all stakeholders in developing innovative solutions. Almost eight out of ten NHS staff (79%) agree it is beneficial to include patient-public involvement (PPI) groups in the design and deployment of new technologies. This is a great opportunity for technology co-creation, fuelling the sectors’ shift into the digital future.

Technology should be a tool to support NHS staff and help enhance patient care. With thoughtful co-design and clinically-led implementation, technology will serve as a positive force for change.

Mateen Jiwani is a member of BT’s Clinical Advisory Board