The NHS journey to digital

The National Health Service (NHS): British institution, Olympic centrepiece and the single largest employer in the UK. A source of mingled pride, joy, frustration and elation in the minds of those it serves.

It has, from its inception, been a political hot potato. The current government has come under fire for what is perceived by some as modernisation, others as wholesale destruction.

Personal opinion aside, the announcement by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that he intends to make the NHS “paperless” by 2018 will trigger a step change in the way it deals with its often-unstructured data.

This push to use technology to drive efficiency was initiated by Hunt’s predecessor, Andrew Landsley, who pledged to bring about an “information revolution” in the NHS.

>See also: Making the paperless NHS a practical reality

The problem of information and how it should be managed often acts as a fault line in the healthcare system. The scope of the NHS – both in the geographical terms of the area and individuals it must serve and the philosophical terms of its guiding ethos and mission – means that it must handle truly vast amounts of information.

Data in the NHS is not simple numerical inputs or uniform categories but complex, unstructured data. Adding to the complexity, the nature of patient confidentiality means that access to this information must be tightly controlled: this is big data at its most unwieldy.

Methods of collection are generally paper-based, wasting time and effort, and ultimately funds that could be directed towards improving patient care.

In addition, failures from both this and previous governments to maintain data integrity and restrain budgets have caused public perception of government-driven IT projects to become somewhat tarnished.

Database software helps businesses in all industry sectors to gain insights into their operations and boost productivity. In a similar way, database management could free the NHS and its staff from paper-based records and act as an efficiency enabler, increasing the time that healthcare professionals can spend caring for patients.

From big paper to insight

Lack of integration, lack of transparency and lack of consistency can stunt any organisation – and the NHS is no different.

The reforms should work to increase these things by requiring every local NHS group to have its own medical records database, which is securely available online and able to integrate with the health service as a whole.

In the future, different professionals involved in the treatment of one patient will be able to instantly share information about their care. Patient details will not be kept in silos but will be accessible where they are needed most – at the point of treatment – and only by those with permission to access them.

Furthermore, access to real-time data could help regulators to identify anomalies or burgeoning problems across the service. A recent analysis of how the NHS in England treats data, the Caldicott review, has urged the service to overcome a “culture of anxiety” and share information more effectively, arguing that this could improve patient care.

A number of healthcare sectors have already introduced technology that streamlines their operations, demonstrated by the range of healthcare customers that are using our database software to bring about improvements in efficiency.

One such example Free Diagnostic Pathology Software Project – reveals that the impact of this technology is not limited to the “front line” of the GP surgery. Those involved in the project created database management software to improve the speed and accuracy of cancer reporting, using easy-to-use forms to input information such as patient details and observations that had previously been stored as unstructured data.

By deploying a technology that is simple to use and does not require management overheads or IT specialists, the project has helped to reduce the time required by pathologists to input findings and, as a result, to diagnose cancer. It can be used on both computers and mobile devices allowing hundreds of simultaneous users and keeping costs to a minimum.

Granted, healthcare provision is not the same as purchasing groceries in the supermarket. It is nonetheless important that it works for those it is designed to serve – whether they are patients or customers – just as a business, if it is to survive, should be aligned to the needs of its customers and focus on generating the best possible value for them. 

The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, for example, is moving to replace traditional paper patient forms with electronic versions.

In order to enable this, it is using the iPad to deliver a patient questionnaire app, to replace the paper version.

The questionnaires are simple for patients, but a complex set of scoring rules needs to be applied for the clinical significance of the answers to become apparent.

The app calculates the patient’s score automatically and is integrated with the hospital’s patient records management system, where patient information and the questionnaire results are stored.

>See also: Going paperless: the clash between IT staff and NHS Trust heads

These can be automatically analysed and securely synched to desktops to provide doctors with more relevant data prior to seeing a patient and negate the need for filling in multiple questionnaires.

The app not only saves the doctors’ time and make the process more efficient, but also delivers patient benefits. This way information is available instantly from the moment a patient completes the questionnaire on the iPad. Doctors are then able to discuss the information with patients in their current appointment as opposed to needing to wait longer to see the analysis.

This is only one example of how a switch from paper to iPad could aid the NHS. It is easy to see how the same method could be applied across all departments and for multiple use cases to add further efficiency and cost savings, while at the same time, improving patient care.

The business environment has been successfully and securely dealing with large volumes of data for a number of years now – and the NHS could learn a great deal from businesses' successful use of database management to drive efficiency, increase flexibility and generate value.


Sourced from Tony Speakman, FileMaker

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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