Future of the NHS: new technologies and the networks behind them

Even the sunniest of optimists would be hard pushed to describe the NHS’s relationship with technology as wholly positive. And no one would describe the task of developing millions of electronic patient records (EPRs), integrating social and health care information, and developing the infrastructure to connect the myriad trusts, hospitals, surgeries and clinics as straightforward.

But despite this seemingly uphill struggle, the digitisation of the NHS is a dream we must not relinquish. Proof of why a digital NHS is so important lies directly with the revelation in February that 500,000 test results and letters – including blood-test results, cancer-screening results, biopsy results, and correspondence relating to child-protection cases – were mislaid over a five-year period. This shows us just how vital it is to have a seamless and secure method of data transfer, storage and retrieval.

>See also: Digital technology is the ‘only way forward’ for NHS sustainability

The NHS of the future will only be as good as its network

The possible breach of public data and consequent absolute breach of public trust (not to mention the clinical harm that may have ensued following this data loss) are reason enough to focus attention on digitising the NHS, and the role of digital in supporting its sustainability and transformation Plans (STPs).

For digital to deliver, network infrastructure has to be fit for purpose – in this case to enable cloud-based EPRs, clinician mobility, telehealth and the integration of health and social care in a highly available and resilient manner. What’s the point of best-in-class clinical applications if the underlying infrastructure impedes their performance?

Since NPfIT – subsequently Connecting for Health – came to its ignominious end, infrastructure technologies have advanced significantly. For example, software-defined networking (SDN) technology has matured to the point where NHS trusts can benefit from its value.

In essence, the control of data traffic in SDNs is no longer dependent on forwarding hardware such as routers and switches in the network’s nodes. Instead it is managed by programmable software that allows network administrators to regulate the transfer of data and deliver services to wherever they are needed in the network – regardless of the specific devices, server or other hardware components in place.

Apply this to a trust’s wide area network (WAN), and NHS IT teams can more easily control access, traffic, identity management and even Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) security.

>See also: Transforming healthcare with tech

As a result, services and resources can be tuned up or down as needed, significantly reducing management time and effort across the IT estate. Crucially, front-line staff have high-speed access to critical applications, due to intelligent routing and application-aware quality of service (QoS), which improves productivity.

Could next generation cloud services save the health service?

These same principles underpin the concept of the next generation of cloud services, which will be born out of software-defined networking. With these solutions in place, software definition applies all the way from a healthcare worker’s mobile device to the data centre and whatever private, public, or hybrid cloud arrangements the trust has in place.

Trusts get all the advantages of the SDN, with the added advantage of the pay-as-you-go model for compute-intensive applications, as well as hardware, storage and security.
This is essential.

Anyone with an iTunes account or who uses Microsoft 365 in the office is using the cloud. But this is a far cry from the solutions needed by the NHS. Mention the cloud in any meeting, and immediately thoughts turn to cyber security – despite the fact that NHS bodies are typically subject to six data breaches every day when reliant on their own in-house security provisions.

>See also: Improving patient care through technology

In contrast, the application of next generation cloud services, built over software defined networks, provides a scalable platform that is regularly upgraded with the latest hardware and software.

This includes evolving cyber-security services, which, thanks to the economies of scale involved, can be deployed at a much faster rate over the cloud than individual trusts could ever imagine.

Take note from the private sector

The private sector has wholeheartedly embraced cloud solutions: even companies with exceptionally sensitive proprietary information, such as those in financial services, rely on secure and sophisticated solutions. But earlier this year, the cloud has been officially endorsed for the public sector.

In January 2017, the Government Digital Service’s guidance said: “It’s possible for public-sector organisations to safely put highly personal and sensitive data into the public cloud… Cloud providers have a significant budget to maintain, patch and secure their cloud infrastructure. This means public cloud services can mitigate many common risks that often pose challenges for government organisations.”

>See also: Helping the NHS one app at a time

Implementing SD-WAN and next generation cloud solutions need not be a big bang transformation. Because SD technology integrates with current WANs and clouds, even an incremental deployment, such as between a trust’s main site and the data centres hosting its clinical applications, can provide significant benefits.

What’s more, plug-and-play SD technology means that new services, new sites, new networks and new clouds can be deployed in hours.

Under the watchful eye of the National Data Guardian and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on one hand, and the Public Accounts Committee on the other, there’s no single way for NHS trusts to digitise operations. And there’s no easy or single path to balancing infrastructure investment with round-the-clock patient care.

But there are plenty of opportunities for best practice sharing and buddying between trusts as the technology has evolved to become much more NHS-friendly.

One thing seems clear through: with data ever more important to successfully managing patient outcomes, SD-WANs and next generation cloud services have an important role to play in the survival, security and indeed the future of the NHS.


Sourced by Lee Wade, CEO, Exponential-e

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...