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DrDoctor: “Waiting lists are the single biggest challenge the NHS has ever faced”

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DrDoctor

The NHS is dealing with record-high waiting lists. DrDoctor is out to tackle the crisis and “reset” the healthcare sector with a digital-first approach. Health Tech World talked to the company’s co-founder, Tom Whicher 

In February this year, almost 388,000 patients had been waiting over a year for non-urgent surgery. In February last year, this figure was just 1,613.

Now more than ever, technology is being called upon to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the UK’s healthcare sector.

DrDoctor is a patient engagement platform working specifically with acute hospitals. With three key elements to the application, including communication and engagement tools, scheduling tools and data collection tools, DrDoctor is aiming to combat mammoth waiting lists.

Patients who use the app have access to information about their care, including appointment details and information about where they are on the journey. It also includes relevant documentation and offers patients the opportunity to ask their doctor or an administrator questions ahead of the appointment.

On the clinician’s side, doctors can set up a care pathway for specific patients and view all of their patients on a dashboard, allowing them to compare different cohorts.

According to the company’s co-founder, Tom Whicher, hospitals that are using the company’s ‘remote-first’ model have seen 30-60 per cent reductions in follow up appointments.

Whicher told Health Tech World: “We’ve noticed that by using our engagement tools and our communication tools, hospitals have managed to do some relatively straightforward things like waiting list validation, waiting list prioritisation and waiting list stratification. That can often make a really big difference in the number of patients on the list.”

DrDoctor Tom Whicher

Tom Whicher (pictured) co-founded DrDoctor in 2012

One of DrDoctor’s partners said it was able to remove 12 per cent of patients from the waiting list simply by validating appointments with a text message.

“We believe that health care needs a reset,” Whicher continued. “The supply and demand equation has been out of balance for a really long time. My view is that if we can build a remote-first healthcare system, we can solve that supply and demand issue.”

Recent statistics show that in February 2021, 4.7 million people were waiting for routine operations in England, a record high for the NHS.

Although the health service is facing a monumental challenge, Whicher believes that tackling the issue could be a “once in a generation moment of change”.

“[The pandemic] has changed the health service massively and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Covid-19 has accelerated us about five years into the future,” he said.

“I think the forcing function which the elective waiting list is going to create is much stronger than the forcing function that came through [the pandemic]. With Covid-19 itself, hospitals were just heads down dealing with a challenge.

“There was no room to look more than two steps in front. We’ve come out the back of that and health services respond fantastically, but we’ve now got to deal with five years worth of waiting patients.

“I think that’s going to force people to work differently in a way that nothing else ever has [and] that’s really exciting if you’re in the health tech sector.”

Earlier this month, the NHS announced a £160 million initiative to tackle waiting lists and set the NHS on the road to recovery. However, Whicher believes more needs to be done to future-proof the health service.

“If you look at how much money we spent during Covid-19, £160 million isn’t actually very much,” he continued.

“I think the waiting list is the single biggest challenge the NHS has ever faced. And I think if we use it as a moment of change to transition the NHS from place-based, episodic-based care to digital-first whole value care, then we’ll have created a healthcare system that’s fit for the future.

“If we don’t manage to do that, I think we’ll end up with an NHS which is in real trouble.”

DrDoctor was founded in 2012. At that time, the boom in digital healthcare was still a couple of years away. Whicher was working for a consultancy company on an outpatient transformation project and found himself frustrated by the inefficiency of the paper-based clinic.

“I remember watching what was happening and thinking, ‘this is terrible, there’s got to be a better way of doing this’,” Whicher recalled.

“We started with that really simple concept of putting appointments online and it snowballed from there.”

Self-funded at the time, the company secured two customers which were their only clients for the next three years.

“We were too early to the market. In those first couple years, people thought we were a bit crazy,” Whicher said. “People were saying ‘why are you trying to put appointments online?’ and ‘why are you trying to do remote care?’”

Eventually, in 2016, the company won a contract with Guys and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust who recognised the potential in the technology and enlisted DrDoctor to digitise its outpatient services.

From there, the company has grown exponentially and is now in use across thirty-six NHS acute trusts with ten million unique users and 50 million NHS appointments booked through the app.

“Guys [& St Thomas] could see that this was the future of health and that was the beginning of our growth journey,” Whicher added.

“Off the back of that contract, we had some fantastic results. We had a 10% increase in throughput, we had massive improvement in patient experience and we’ve then been scaling ever since.”

Predicting that every hospital in the country will have a “digital front door” in the next five years, Whicher and his team have ambitions to become the primary patient engagement platform in the UK.

Over the next 12 months, DrDoctor is rolling out three new AI tools. The first tool, which is currently live and being tested, is able to identify patients who may not show up to their appointment, allowing healthcare professionals to engage with the patient ahead of the appointment slot.

The second element of the AI suite is due to launch at the end of August. It will identify linking appointments and schedule them so they fall on one day.

The final component will be released at the beginning of 2022, Whicher said. It uses AI and data collection tools to identify which patients should be prioritised in the waiting list.

“This stuff is happening really quickly and my message to CIOs and to the market generally, is that interoperability [and] having a complete platform is really key, because there’s no point in doing bits of this,” Whicher said. “It has to be viewed as a shift in the way we’re going to do business as hospitals and we’ve got to think about the problem end to end.”

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