Clare Aris, senior consultant, Entec Si, explores how the health care sector can implement remote or hybrid working while maintaining high standards of care
To reduce pressure on those working in healthcare, one strategy to consider is adapting to more remote or hybrid ways of working. To do so effectively, a holistic view must be taken and linked up digital systems and databases will be essential, as will suitable equipment, training and personal development. So, how can the health care sector undertake such a considerable transformation, while maintaining high standards of care?
During the pandemic, the healthcare sector has seen a shift towards remote working and virtual care. Appointments taking place over phone or video calls enabled people to get the advice they needed safely and efficiently and are likely to remain an option for patients in the future. However, this remote approach to healthcare has highlighted certain challenges that need to be addressed as the sector evolves.
Factors as seemingly simple as poor Wi-Fi or unsuitable equipment have triggered a range of issues for healthcare staff, from lagging video calls during patient consultations to back problems. Employers have had to rely on their employees’ self-assessments when it comes to reviewing the safety of their working environments, leading to people struggling in silence and damaging their own wellbeing in the process.
Work/life balance & wellbeing
The sector also needs to contend with the issue of overworking. While remote working has provided many healthcare employees with a better work/life balance, it does have the potential to make work ever-present. The temptation to answer emails out of hours or continue to work for longer than required can lead to employees feeling burnt out. Many organisations are now also using social media channels such as WhatsApp as workplace communications tools, which can be even more pervasive than emails.
Understanding everyone’s personal circumstances is difficult for employers, especially in some areas of the healthcare sector where there are hundreds of people to consider. However, staff wellbeing must always be a priority. Keeping communication open, whether through regular meetings or feedback surveys, can ensure employees have the support they need throughout the change process.
Then there are the more technical challenges that must be overcome, such as the need to achieve linked-up data and systems. To successfully work remotely, the formation of robust technology infrastructure is essential, requiring a significant digital transformation project. Understanding user requirements is vital when undertaking a major change in processes, so clear communication with everyone set to use the technology is key.
Due to the sensitive nature of healthcare data, security in a remote working environment must be created. While the cloud provides flexibility and is undoubtedly the ideal platform for agile working, care must be taken regarding data protection and compliance. Some NHS Trusts mandate that employees should only use Trust equipment because of this, however, this can impose limitations on flexibility and exclude staff who are not routinely working at a desk or laptop.
Although there are certain hurdles to implementing remote working, it does bring with it great benefits. From an employee perspective, those with other commitments, such as childcare, can better balance work with their personal life. It’s also a more cost-effective way of working for both employees and employers. Parking fees for staff at hospitals is a hotly contested issue, which is eased by being able to work from home, bringing benefits to those working remotely and those who need to be physically present at a site. Having fewer people in a physical place of work also means that downsizing a facility portfolio is possible, reducing running costs and infection risks. However, when taking steps to downsize the physical workspace, it is vital that systems are put in place that allows staff to book desks or meeting rooms, ensuring every person has a comfortable space to work in.
Flexible working can also provide a range of benefits for patients, including improved waiting times and being able to receive the care they need from anywhere. Remote care even has the potential to reduce the time patients spend in hospital, with tracking and monitoring systems enabling doctors to check up on the status of patients when they are at home. The advent of affordable wearable technology brings with it the advantage of improved monitoring capabilities, which can grant a much greater level of data to support decision making.
While remote working does provide these positives, employers must bear in mind that not all staff will be able to work remotely as effectively as others. For example, administrative staff should be able to do so relatively easily, whereas GPs might not. Balancing employee needs is a vital part of the transformation process, and for such a diverse sector, this will require a thorough understanding of each division’s roles and the logistics involved in enabling them to work remotely. As a result, full engagement with staff is important, with feedback collected on a regular basis. It’s no good enabling staff to work remotely if there are some essential elements of work that need them to be physically present. For example, a pharmacist may need to be in the pharmacy and a radiology consultant may require specialist equipment to carry out their diagnosis.
The breadth of the healthcare sector also means that adopting a phased approach to change is wise. Whether this is a location-by-location pilot or a gradual introduction of new digital systems, this will help employers to identify any issues early, before it has a significant impact on staff or patients. It is vital that high standards of care are maintained while undertaking any form of transformation in the healthcare sector, and a phased approach can help to ensure this is the case.
Ultimately, communication between all involved in the change programme, from employers and employees to patients, is the key to successfully shifting to a more remote care system. Consistency in messaging, so that everyone knows where they stand, as well as demonstrating a clear commitment to remote working practices, will help to keep people on board throughout the change process.
It’s also important to consider fairness, as remote working brings more benefits for office-based staff. Trusts should think about how those who cannot carry out their work remotely – often frontline medical staff, porters and cleaners – will benefit from these practices too.
Like many others, the healthcare sector has been forced to take a reactive approach to digital transformation during the pandemic. However, it’s now time to formulate a strategic yet flexible plan, considering the next few years. By assessing what has worked well, and what hasn’t, a positive evolution towards a more remote future can continue.