What a £4 billion ICT investment could mean for the NHS

by Alex Walter, managing partner and O2 public sector champion – healthcare

Jeremy Hunt’s recent announcement of a planned £4 billion investment into the NHS’s ICT infrastructure is likely to divide opinions. Not only about how this money should best be spent to support pressurised clinicians and healthcare workers, but also whether it will succeed in delivering results.

Those with good memories and cynical dispositions might find this recent pledge reminiscent of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) – the seven-year-long, £10 billion exercise that was eventually scrapped in 2013. GPs and healthcare practitioners complained it was slow, cumbersome, insufficiently explained and poorly implemented. MPs were even more scathing, labelling it “the worst and most expensive contracting fiasco in the history of the public sector”.

So, whether this new ICT overhaul works or not comes largely down to how and, more importantly, for whom each step of the upgrade is designed.

The full details are yet to emerge, but it’s expected to include £1.8 billion to remove outdated paper-based systems, £1 billion to bolster cyber security and data access, £750 million to improve the integration of health and social care, and around £400 million to put towards a new NHS website, healthcare apps and free public wifi access across the NHS estate.

My team and I have recently undertaken the paperless challenge ourselves. The transformation has been frustrating at times – largely due to IT challenges, as it turns out – but ultimately, it has also been extremely illuminating and worthwhile. We’ve documented our journey through a series of videos, which we will share in due course. It’s from this first-hand experience that we can understand how going paperless will improve working lives and patient care across the healthcare sector, but it also enables us to empathise with the associated challenges.

While the benefits of going paperless and using digital solutions might seem obvious from the outside, particularly with regards to integrating health and ongoing social care, this emphasis on eliminating paper-based bureaucracy is one that will need to be handled delicately. Maintaining healthy levels of supplier competition whilst at the same time ensuring an interoperable system across healthcare providers is no easy feat. But it will be worth it. As a father of three young children, I myself have witnessed acute care and community care several times in the last decade and, whilst the care has generally been outstanding, I have been shocked every time by the administrative processes, both in terms of their glacial pace and the amount of paper used. When talking to clinicians it also soon becomes clear that patient-facing staff often spend only 20–40% of their time in front of patients – the rest of their time being consumed by paper-based administration.

Although Hunt rightly points out that doctors find filling in paperwork to be frustrating and time-consuming, it’s also difficult for practitioners to ‘unlearn’ procedural behaviours – particularly in the midst of actual life-or-death situations. Healthcare staff have extremely limited time to invest in training on new devices and systems, so any replacement needs to be instant, intuitive and ready-to-work right out of the box.

So will this latest investment deliver the desired results? We believe that as long as any proposed solution is based on how people actually work, then it can deliver enormous benefits. Putting the patient in the centre of any activity, getting their buy-in to acknowledge their own responsibilities, ensuring that every project has both a clinical lead and a business lead, promoting a healthily competitive supplier environment and sharing best practices, should give this latest funding the best chance of making a positive difference. But any successful ICT implementation needs to be ‘people first’.

If you have any comments, please feel free to contact me directly on 07786 333 444.