Building a lasting digital backbone – Matt Hancock’s NHS challenge


We’re all painfully aware that the NHS needs a technological revolution but funds, as ever, are tight. So where should Matt Hancock spend the money? We speak to Chris McCullough, CEO and co-founder at Rotageek and ex-A&E doctor, who believes the answer lies somewhere less obvious than you might think

The Health Secretary has a notoriously difficult brief, with overall responsibility for complex health and social care issues, so Matt Hancock has faced a steep learning curve as he settles into his new role. That deep-rooted complexity is further exacerbated by the current health and social care landscape – he also inherits additional unsettled issues spanning employment and staffing, through to an urgent need to update legacy systems and overhaul technology.

Matt Hancock is already looking for solutions in the right places, with the NHS set to receive a £487m technology funding boost. His passion for technology and its capabilities is a clear advantage over his predecessors when it comes to driving digital transformation across the NHS. Matt Hancock’s previous accomplishments highlight his digital-first approach – pushing for superfast broadband, calling for the Government’s Digital Charter, even putting the word ‘digital’ into The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s name!

This understanding of the potential of technology is promising, but as he drives health and social care towards modernisation and efficiency, it is essential that he looks beyond flashy gadgets and devices.

A lasting digital foundation

For too long the NHS has been weighed down by a mismatch of new and old technologies that simply do not and cannot work together. This cash injection can change this. The NHS has secured a meaningful investment in technology, which can improve the outlook for healthcare workers and patients alike. However, it’s the next step that will make all the difference. The money must be spent in the right places.

Flashy frontend devices and apps might help signal a digital future for the NHS, but to convert this considerable promise into measurable success we need to start from the ground up. We need to build a lasting digital backbone. Something that can support the NHS in continuing to deliver excellent care both today and into the future.

Solving the right issues

Medical technology advances are frequently spotlighted for all the right reasons but, to significantly improve patient care on a large scale, the best course is a little more abstract. Aside from adequate staffing and recruitment, one of the biggest blockers to providing the best patient care isn’t access to medicines or equipment. It’s the backend technology and legacy systems.

For example, staff scheduling is often not managed by intelligent, data-driven technology, but through simple and unsuitable platforms. It might not sound the most pressing issue, but bad rostering can have far-reaching consequences – failure to recruit or, even worse, losing talented staff who need flexibility. This is especially critical in hospitals and GP practices. Put simply – the right people, in the right place, at the right time can be the difference between staff in post or a rota gap and, ultimately, a life saved and a life lost.

Investing in technology in the right way can solve this recurring problem once and for all, helping set up our nurses, doctors and healthcare workers to be in the best possible position to deliver excellent patient care. Despite their high professionalism and skills, healthcare workers aren’t super-human. Leaving them stretched, stressed, and close to burnout is bad for everyone.

Chris McCullough

Exploring ideas

The new health secretary is aiming high – boldly discussing his vision for the UK to have the most advanced health-tech sector in the world. So it’s vital to take the time to evaluate the different options on offer, and he is certainly doing this.

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He has visited Beijing to share ideas on how the UK and China can collaborate to improve public health through technological innovations, and has outlined funding to create additional global digital exemplars – building on an existing initiative – to share learnings and experiences between trusts to facilitate quick and effective digital transformation programmes. Whilst those funds are not expected to be released until 2019, it’s great to see further digital investment programmes in the pipeline.

Using data intelligently

It’s no secret that funding and skilled healthcare professionals aren’t infinite. And things are likely to get worse after Brexit. Prioritising technologies that can analyse and utilise data effectively can make the most of the people and resources available – from doctors and nurses, to facilities and equipment. Using automated data processes and algorithmic forecasting can make that a reality. This easily accessible technology will outperform even the most organised manager.

A human brain simply cannot weigh up the same amount of data points – considering whether the right people are in the right place at the right time, but also whether the right team mix is in place is a difficult task in any organisation. It’s even more difficult when you consider the number of moving variables at play in a healthcare setting.

This isn’t about automating schedules and allocation of resources, it’s about delivering the best option to a human, and that then being sense checked. The key is that data and technology must allow people to make better decisions, rather than being the decision maker itself.

Making the right choices

The technologies to make this a reality are within reach. Adopting a data-driven approach to staff and business management is the only way to conclusively know that resources are being used efficiently. More importantly, these types of technologies can also intelligently assess whether staff have been scheduled fairly and sensibly. We just need dedication and decisive action.

Making the right decisions now will ensure our NHS workers are in the best position to do what they do best – care for their patients.

About the author

Journalist and editor Kathryn Reilly has worked in consumer, contract and medical writing for more than 20 years.

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