How can the NHS keep up with skyrocketing digital demand?

digital demand
© Vladyslav Yushynov

Satpal Biant, Head of Public Sector, UK & Ireland SAP, explores why the NHS must keep up with digital demand while reducing costs and improve service continuity for a truly integrated healthcare asset to be formed

For those who work in the tech industry, the term ‘digitisation’ has been used for over a decade as shorthand to explain the next step in collaboration and communication. In recent years, the term has become more closely aligned with businesses, but it wasn’t really until self-service tills in supermarkets popped up and transportation organisations introduced ticketless systems that the public really started to personally experience the increasingly digital trajectory of everyday life.

In 2020, the wheels in motion accelerated tenfold to birth a new level of digitisation that is now accommodating a different, remote way of working. The transformation that has taken place since the start of the pandemic has ingrained digitisation into the fabric of our society for both business and pleasure.

The launch of Mobile Apps by NHS Digital is one such development that has received extraordinary interest from citizens, with the Covid-19 App having been downloaded a staggering 25.8 million times and the NHS App visited by almost 5 million distinct users between May -June. The NHS App has since developed to include other features such as proof of vaccination and appointment bookings. There are suggestions that further developments might include a “personal risk score” alerting users to their level of risk of infection-based proximity and time spent adjacent to others – using Bluetooth technology.

Despite planned developments, the NHS App is just the start of a national transformation for our public healthcare service as plans to digitally transform the organisation take precedence. But with 67 million people to serve across the island nation and 1.4 million NHS employees to support, how can the NHS navigate widespread adoption while producing a truly integrated and value-based healthcare asset?

How the NHS is changing

The NHS that we all once knew is changing, quickly. Internally, once antiquated infrastructures and systems are being overhauled and digitised with modern experiences for patients and ways of working top of mind. Outside the NHS, new cloud capabilities that provide secure in-country services are creating the infrastructure to maximize technology innovation in healthcare.

The NHS Long Term Plan will increase the range of digital tools and services to allow patients to seek out online information and support in line with the recent wave of virtual consultations, online record keeping and patient monitoring.

This new modern way of servicing society aims to deliver faster, safer and more convenient patient care by investing in an overhaul of the organisation’s IT infrastructure. Digital apps are the result of innovations that enable the NHS to provide targeted services with ongoing online support. The approach essentially empowers patients by allowing them to manage their own health and wellbeing needs with the support of healthcare professionals. This kind of innovation is the first step to providing patients with a window into their medical records so that they can access trusted information and seek out medical advice.

For staff, this evolution can free up resources and focus employees’ attention on more complex and rewarding tasks that add more value to public institutions and to citizens.

Though there are clear societal benefits to the ubiquitous digital healthcare utopia firmly imprinted in the mind’s eye of healthcare leaders, there are complexities to overcome before the NHS can reach its goal of digital interoperability and centralised patient care. The goal is a value-based system that moves towards end to end, extended network of care for patients.

Delivering seamless healthcare within a decentralised market

COVID-19 highlighted the need for a truly centralised approach to digital healthcare which includes a nationwide cloud strategy and an enhanced, legal and ethical data sharing programme. Yet the complex and fragmented IT architecture within the NHS means that efficient processes and service continuity are difficult to achieve. This is creating a challenging environment when it comes to adopting digital technology both internally and externally.

When staff across organisations are unable to communicate and collaborate effectively it is likely to have a direct knock-on effect on patient care. Improving the patient experience really comes down to cohesion and ubiquity. Can patients access their own medical records? Are they able to have a responsible role in caring for themselves and their own data? Can they communicate with a professional when necessary and does that professional have all the background information, they need to make informed decisions about treatment? All these questions rely on the accurate dissemination of information. Data is therefore critical to the effective management of patients and staff. In recent months, government officials announced a deliberate delay in the central NHS digital database. The strategic decision was made to better onboard patients and familiarise them with this new approach to healthcare, allowing more time to learn about the system.

While strategic investment in digital transformation will certainly support the patient-centred, integrative care that the NHS so desperately needs, bringing patients into the fold will allow the organisation to go a lot further in its endeavours. Empowering citizens with control of their own data is key to building trust around this shift in health care. We can do that by equipping them with the digital tools to manage their data effectively. Equally, doubling down with the right partner that can enable data-driven decision making, uplevel the service offering, and transform operational processes will improve efficiency and patient outcomes.

Digitalisation has been essential to fighting the virus and it will continue to play a central role in realising the potential of the NHS Long Term Plan. However, wider adoption can only be navigated when there is a truly joined-up IT infrastructure in place that can keep pace with skyrocketing demand while reducing costs and improving service continuity.

Although the increasing uptake of digital services is better than the NHS could have hoped for, let’s not get lost in the sauce. Technology is just a vehicle to drive change. The bridge must be stable before we can all cross it and that will require the right creators, the right tools, the right partners and a willingness to innovate.


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