Harnessing digital to beat the healthcare backlog



As NHS healthcare services begin to emerge from the grip of the coronavirus crisis, attention is turning to future challenges. Mike Hobby, healthcare transformation partner at Checkit, discusses the importance of digitisation in addressing this


Healthcare providers face not only the challenges of the ongoing f roll-out (even more vital given the new Delta variant) but a care backlog of patients whose treatment has been put on hold in some cases for over a year. Dealing with the next phase of pandemic recovery will require a shift from the reactivity that was necessary last year to a more proactive approach to problem-solving.

Digital capabilities will be crucial in better managing the workloads of frontline teams and providing data-driven insight that identifies trends and improves forward planning.

Earlier this year the NHS Confederation announced that the NHS is facing a “hidden backlog” of 6 million patients who delayed treatment because of the pandemic. By the end of 2020, 224,000 patients had been waiting for more than a year for treatment, compared to 1,500 at the end of 2019. In many cases, those who faced delays may have seen their conditions deteriorate and now require additional treatment.

This is the pressure the NHS is under as we go forward, which will be no easier or less relentless, with the ongoing care of patients and the backlog of elective care being the new normal.  In this new healthcare phase, frontline staff will need to keep standards and quality high, demonstrate best practice and navigate increasingly rigorous regulatory requirements. Process management technologies prompt and guide frontline teams with instructions to reinforce procedures, as well as generating a digital audit trail of what has been done, when and where, for compliance reporting.

In this way, digitisation can be huge in helping to meet regulatory requirements. The UK’s national accreditation body, UKAS, and Care Quality Commission (CQC) have overseen healthcare providers to ensure they monitor aspects of medicine storage, or laboratory systems.

Automated monitoring meets that need by removing the manual burden of regular temperature checks in favour of 24/7 surveillance and alerts that notify staff of variations. However, temperature readings on their own give no indication of what happened next. Regulators increasingly want to see evidence of what was done in response to an alert. This requires controlled processes and clear demonstration of best practice.

For example, inadequate CQC ratings frequently contain comments such as: “There was no assurance that medicines had been stored in the correct temperature range.” Inspectors also point out that staff were not aware of escalation processes, failed to report incidents or didn’t take steps to protect against infection.

By contrast, outstanding reports typically point out good procedural knowledge among staff and a proactive approach to safety. Investment in digital solutions is often a common factor. An outstanding rating will contain comments such as: “Staff were aware of processes and standard procedures to keep people safe”. Another example: “The Trust has significantly invested in improving digital maturity and introduced new functionality.”

Digital process management tools with interactive checklists and real-time reporting can be a pathway from inadequate to outstanding CQC ratings.

Regulators now want evidence of actions taken, evidence of what was done and alignment with best practice. Digital innovation offers a practical answer to these requirements.  In the next phase of pandemic recovery, it will be difficult to address these issues with archaic manual checks and paperwork. A stretched workforce, with limited numbers, temporary stand-ins, widespread exhaustion and recruitment challenges, going back to normal is not going to work.

A fresh approach is needed. Digital innovation offers to maintain high standards and meet stringent regulations with less admin. It’s time to bring the processes to the staff, place it in their hands, in a simple-to-use format that guides them on what to do. If they are nearing the end of a shift, they can pass it to colleagues coming on duty, preventing risk to patients or failing proper process.

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