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Exploring the role of digital solutions in alleviating the NHS staffing crisis

By Mark Gannon, Director of Client Solutions at Netcall



The recent ambulance strikes serve as a poignant reflection of the broader issues plaguing the National Health Service.

Over the past year, the NHS has witnessed an alarming rate of staff resignations, with a record-breaking 400 employees leaving each week.

Reports indicate that factors such as stress, lack of work-life balance, and inadequate compensation are driving nurses to quit in unprecedented numbers, resulting in more than 40,000 departures in 2022 alone.

The significance of these challenges was particularly highlighted in December when nurses across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland staged a historic strike, constituting the largest staffing protest in the history of the NHS.

These strikes, aimed at drawing attention to the mounting issues within the healthcare system, are anticipated to persist throughout this year.

The message from the health workforce is one of being overworked and underpaid, with significant pressure to deliver savings amid tight budgets, leading to mass burnout.

Widely reportedly to be under-resourced, understaffed and underfunded, with a record-high waiting list of over seven million, the NHS is struggling to effectively respond to the challenges of elective recovery and the pressures on emergency care.

Further strikes are likely to exacerbate existing fragilities.

The role of digitisation in facilitating the NHS’s recovery

A digital-first approach is critical.

NHS organisations require the resources, hours and returns on investment that can be facilitated by the right technologies.

An AI-powered automation and customer engagement platform that can integrate with legacy and external systems is an opportunity to deliver the change needed to ease the burden on healthcare workers.

This can be delivered at pace and in a cost-effective way, compared to traditional development methods.

Digitisation presents opportunities to improve patient care, reduce administrative load and minimise inefficiencies.

Assisting NHS staff in delivering enhanced patient care

Instead of relying on traditional off-the-shelf digital solutions that often result in dissatisfaction with functionality or supplier responsiveness, organisations now have the option to develop tailor-made solutions that align with their specific requirements.

A comprehensive automation and customer engagement platform will include transformative technologies, such as a low-code platform, digital contact centre solutions, robotic process automation (RPA), pre-built machine learning models and omnichannel messaging offerings.

The technologies work complementarily, driving the best outcomes for healthcare workers and patients.

With an agnostic platform, opportunities for integration across both telephony and existing legacy solutions bring the ability to move, rather than duplicate, information within the organisation.

This provides the visibility required to attend to patients effectively without additional work.

Technology and humans – a winning combination

By harnessing the power of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), healthcare professionals can offload repetitive and mundane tasks, allowing them to dedicate more time to essential responsibilities such as direct patient care.

For instance, in the discharge process, pharmacies often encounter the laborious duty of halting medication dispensing for patients.

This time-consuming process can be efficiently automated through RPA, resulting in significant time and effort savings.

Furthermore, low-code development can be employed to create applications that support a wide range of tasks.

For example, a web-based solution developed with low-code can replace manual paper or Excel-based data collection methods.

This modern solution can be designed to be user-friendly and responsive, offering comprehensive reports and timely notifications to staff.

By reducing reliance on paper-based processes, streamlining data processing time, and generating operational efficiencies, low-code applications can unlock substantial benefits.

It’s worth noting that these examples merely scratch the surface of the possibilities achievable through a robust low-code application platform.

Empowering digital solutions

The adoption of an automation and customer engagement platform with an application sharing community empowers healthcare organisations to share solutions, benefiting from others’ innovations.

It has proven effective in reducing DNA rates through pre-built applications for appointment reminders.

Patients can self-service through a patient portal and omnichannel contact center, leading to a 48 per cent average reduction in DNA rates, optimising clinic utilisation.

Additionally, a chatbot handles simple inquiries, improving worker productivity by reducing call times and increasing first-time call resolutions.

While digital solutions enhance interactions for most patients, integrated telephony solutions remain vital for those excluded from digital access due to preference or circumstances.

Digitalisation in action

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, catering to around 1.5 million patients annually, significantly improved its call handling with a healthcare-specific omnichannel contact center, achieving a 95 per cent call answer rate within a minute and lowering the abandon rate below 5 per cent.

This has relieved strained resources, enhancing patient care and staff experience.

Similarly, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust’s omnichannel contact center and patient portal streamlined referrals, leading to faster resolutions.

Automated texts and emails reduced DNAs by 56 per cent and eliminated 340,000 paper letters annually.

While 70 per cent of patients embraced the platform, staff can still accommodate those who opt out of it.

For healthcare organisations, a specially designed platform is vital to support staff, reduce burnout, and drive cost-effective change.

Such flexibility allows seamless integration into existing infrastructure, particularly crucial as numerous NHS estates rely on over 300 legacy systems that hinder data flow.

Being vendor agnostic becomes essential for effective integration, overcoming challenges faced with traditional suppliers and digital solutions that restrict agility and innovation, hindering data mobility.

Outdated heritage systems

Unmodernised legacy systems pose significant problems within the healthcare sector.

Their convoluted infrastructures hinder the efficient flow of information, impeding patients and healthcare professionals from effectively addressing the backlog of NHS inquiries.

This leads to situations where a patient attends an appointment only for the doctor to realise, they haven’t received the necessary test results.

Likewise, patients may be unaware of specific pre-test requirements, resulting in unnecessary time wastage.

To tackle the processing issues plaguing NHS organisations on a large scale, a digital-first strategy becomes crucial for the future of the healthcare system.

It offers a way to navigate the challenges faced by an under-resourced, budget-constrained, and overworked sector.

By embracing digital transformation, healthcare staff can alleviate the burden on their shoulders and dedicate more time to value-adding and fulfilling work.

This benefits both healthcare professionals and patients, fostering improved outcomes and experiences.

However, achieving this transformation requires a comprehensive review and potential adjustment of historical and culturally ingrained work practices.

It is essential to empower staff to focus on the most beneficial and patient-centric activities while ensuring equitable access to digital solutions for those who may face challenges in adopting them.

Such solutions are instrumental in shaping an NHS that can fulfil its duty to patients without burdening an already overstretched workforce.

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