If the NHS gets its technology right, it will reap the benefits financially and for its patients. Read about our KPMG experts being interviewed in The Times.
“If we empower the individual and integrate the system, we can have a hugely positive impact on people’s health and quality of life,” says Juliet Bauer, chief digital officer of NHS England, whose job it is to manage the transformation of the NHS Choices website and deliver technology to help patients manage life-long conditions, such as diabetes and asthma.
But how does an organisation the size of NHS England – with 1.2 million employees and an annual budget of almost £125 billion a year – manage the process of innovation with agility and economy? After all, while technology has the potential to transform healthcare, the public sector has faced well-documented challenges with implementing major IT projects.
For Bauer, the answer is to harness the NHS’s procurement power, but also to recognise that one size does not fit all – and that imposing technology solutions from the centre will often not work. “We rarely choose one solution and commission it nationally,” she says. “We need to set national standards and then cede control regionally because that is where the knowledge and understanding of people’s healthcare needs are to be found.”
However, this does mean that local managers and clinicians often have to make difficult decisions in the face of slick marketing from private-sector providers – ranging from the giant technology companies to small start-ups developing innovative tools to solve particular healthcare problems. “We know we can’t do everything ourselves, but we have to navigate the market with great care – not least because we have such power in that market,” Bauer says.
Paul Henderson, lead for healthcare data analytics at KPMG, says that charting that course is a question of keeping a laser-like focus on the outcomes for which the NHS is striving. All new technologies – and providers – must be judged in that context.
“The only way to make decisions is to anchor the process back to your golden goals of patient safety, higher quality and improved efficiency,” says Henderson. “The question is whether the vendor’s solution will genuinely help the NHS move towards its goals – the decision-makers should have a checklist in mind of what is required.”
Some of the items on that checklist are common sense. For example, is the provider credible and does it have a track record of delivering the benefits it is promising? If so, how big were the gains and how long did they take to achieve?
Think practically, too, says Henderson: “Healthcare managers need to assess how easy it would be to implement a particular technology solution. And will it have the support of key stakeholders, such as the clinicians who will be asked to use it?”
This point is important in the context of the trend in many organisations to set up separate innovation teams that operate independently of frontline staff.
Bauer says she has deliberately made sure her team has representation from such staff, including doctors. “Many of our clinicians are innovators in their own right,” she points out. “They are closest to the change and often driving it.”
Inevitably, however, there is a need to prioritise. One big focus at present is on technology that can help the healthcare system to manage future demand. Part of that involves an emphasis on preventative medicine that will reduce the number of people who need care; here, tools ranging from better online support to mobile apps that promote healthy living – through games, for example – have a role to play. There is also a need to understand how demand for care will play out; the NHS is now using big data and analytics tools to predict which parts of the population will need care – and what type, and when – so it can better plan resources.
Elsewhere, technology, such as wearable devices connected to health providers by the Internet of Things, makes it possible for people’s homes to become an extension of care centres. If doctors can constantly keep an eye on the health of patients – particularly those with chronic conditions – by using digital monitoring tools, without patients having to visit a surgery or hospital, that not only improves the quality of care people receive, it’s also much more efficient.
Another area where innovation can deliver huge dividends is in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. For example, we are already seeing huge advances in diagnostics, such as the use of artificial intelligence to power far more accurate scanning, while genome modelling is increasingly commonplace. And behind the scenes, new technologies are helping facilities to run more efficiently – everything from the use of robotic tools to digital recordkeeping.
In each of these cases, decision-makers are effectively balancing two different potential returns on investment: the extent to which a new solution offers better patient outcomes and whether it will save the NHS money.
Choose wisely and the pay-off is huge. “We can use technology to provide care in the right places at the right time,” says Henderson. “That will enable us to simultaneously improve the quality of care and provide that care more efficiently.”
Nor, of course, are such opportunities limited to healthcare; organisations of every shape and size across the public and the private sectors can apply the same principles to innovation. “The key is to provide the right service at the right time in order to provide better value to customers,” Henderson adds. “Organisations that focus on what value new technologies can deliver, rather than the technology itself, are more likely to enjoy successful outcomes.”
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