The NHS ramps up digital capabilities

The NHS ramps up digital capabilities: are normal people going to be left behind?

The NHS is the nation’s single largest employer, with 1.7 million workers across the UK. In fact, it is the world's fifth-largest single employer.

Anyone who even lightly consumes new media will have noticed that the NHS is often being described as ‘driving for efficiencies’. Bearing in mind the above numbers, this appears to be a sound idea, witnessing the rate of change we are all seeing around us almost on a monthly basis.

Whatever one’s views about how these efficiencies can and will be achieved, it is clear the NHS and UK government are pressing for efficiency through the use of digital services. Again not a great surprise when one considers the seismic shift that technology companies have foisted upon us in the last few years. A short stroll down any high street will reinforce this point even harder.

But so often it is difficult to really divine the intentions of those funding the NHS when there always seems so much at stake politically with every decision, comment, initiative, and investment about this most cherished of all UK institutions. The NHS is no pawn, but the king or queen of any political chess game.

Coming back to the efficiency debate, much emphasis is placed on NHS Digital with its 6000 employees to create and direct new digital solutions to assist patient care. But the promised paperless NHS is still not entirely here. As of October 2018, 94% of NHS Trust were still using handwritten notes which “inevitably leads to errors and potential security issues.”

With the “Internet First” policy, there have been big wins published - having reportedly saved £230 million per year on prescription services. And they are looking to save another £75 million with everyone migrating over to The Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), which provides “a reliable, efficient and flexible way for health and care organisations to access and exchange electronic information”.

And with the launch of the NHS Digital Academy and rollout of the consumer-based NHS app (following a successful pilot), it seems that it is full steam ahead.

The app itself allows people to, among other things, check their symptoms, book appointments, order prescriptions and more. Sounds good? Perhaps. It gains an array of different reviews in the Apple App Store ranging from delight to out and out frustration, gaining 3 stars out of a potential 5 overall. Is this good enough for the NHS’s preferred first interface with the public?

There are specific and declared drives to use Artificial Intelligence, too, with such NHS-published claims as “NHS aims to be a world leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning within 5 years.” Indeed the government has pledged £250 million for a National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab to improve diagnostics and screening in the NHS.

But what about people? Surely if the NHS is about anything it is about people? And so the question is inevitably raised: are digital technologies being used to improve services and to increase the reach of the NHS, or simply to use automation to replace people and eliminating paid human beings from the frontline of medical care?

11.9 million people (22%) do not have the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life in the UK, according to NHS Digital and significantly, the heaviest users of health and social care (including older people and those with long- term conditions and disabilities) are the least likely to be online. So the technical know-how of the recipient has to be always the first concern. The new NHS Digital Champions strategy in local communities can go some way to bringing people’s digital skills up to present time.

What is the optimum? The claim is that the purpose of the NHS’s digital services development is to improve and speed up patient care. But perhaps the true emphasis and balance is actually caught somewhere between improved care and simply saving money - by removing consumer-facing staff from the equation.

And from the point of view of FitSwarm where does that leave us? Is FitSwarm just another money-saving gadget?

With our unique face-to-face group session technology (with a user interface that is more like TV), FitSwarm is offering the opportunity to increase the reach of existing OT and other care experts. Getting groups together that could not otherwise be brought together, or to allow therapists to be in more than one place at once. So as demand increases on services, that demand can be satisfied with existing staffing.

We position ourselves as a friend of the manager of care services and the therapist. Not as an instrument of Government efficiency drives.

Because when all is said and done, care and therapy is always going to be best delivered by people for people. And when it is not, it will always be considered second best. And second best is never the right target. For anyone. At any time.