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Health tech gives the NHS an “opportunity for optimism”

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Danielle Jefferies, analyst for The King’s Fund, offers her comment piece in response to Health Tech World’s recent headline: NHS admits frightening backlog – can tech really fix this? – here’s what she had to say…

There’s no getting away from the significant challenges the NHS is facing at the moment. So, it’s no surprise that many health leaders are embracing opportunities to alleviate some of the pressure on the system. Health data and technology often provides this opportunity to be optimistic. 

Discussions about data and technology often come with undertones of hope. Hope that innovation in these areas might eventually relieve some of the pressures they are currently facing. 

And the issues the system is facing are momentous. The NHS hospital statistics show that the NHS is in crisis. Patients are waiting exponentially longer for ambulances, to be seen in A&E, to get a hospital bed, to be discharged into the community and for elective care. And the system is facing some tough targets on elective waiting times in the future.

On top of this, both staff and the public are expressing their discontent with the current situation. Public satisfaction with the NHS has fallen to a 25-year low, patients are less satisfied with GP services and more and more NHS staff are reporting stress and burn-out.

In response to the question ‘can tech really fix this’, the answer is, not on its own.

Data and technology are not going to be miracle solutions, as we cannot get away from systemic issues like workforce shortages, real-terms funding cuts to the NHS and a lack of social care provision. However, they can provide some optimism for a better future for the NHS.

Health leaders are generally enthusiastic about new digital solutions like virtual wards and technology like surgical hubs. And many are genuinely interested in how we can use data to understand and tackle health inequalities; optimise activity to better manage backlogs of care and integrate care across organisations.

As new Integrated Care Systems (ICS) are starting up, many are interested in how they can best use digital solutions to improve outcomes and reduce health inequalities; and how they share data across organisations to maximise the impact they have. Many ICS leaders are on the lookout for best practice that they can share, learn from, and adopt. 

But this optimism needs time, space, and resources to flourish. To turn enthusiasm into real life digital transformation, the system needs to commit to transforming.

This requires strong leadership, commitment to long-term funding, growth in internal capability and buy-in from staff and patients.

And we still need to be realistic about how much health tech can achieve. The workforce and funding barriers the system is facing, will also be barriers to digital transformation. Realism about implementation will ensure we maintain the optimism.

It would be a shame to see data and technology end up on the long list of things for health leaders to be pessimistic about. 

Danielle Jefferies, Analyst, The King’s Fund, 2022

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  1. Pingback: NHS doctor’s excessive hours and burnout “a worrying prospect” 

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