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Helping healthcare professionals tackle mental health with technology

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By Duncan Greenwood, vice president and general manager (NEMEA) at VMware.

The coronavirus pandemic has catalysed a monumental challenge for key workers in the NHS.

Many have been risking their lives on a daily basis fighting the virus, leading many to be kept away from loved ones to avoid the risk of transmission.

It’s an unprecedented situation not seen before in modern times.

It’s important to remember that it hasn’t just been doctors and nurses that have been fundamental in the nation’s fight against the virus, but also receptionists, care workers, cleaners and office staff too.

However, there’s no doubt the effort will have taken a mental strain on people within the NHS.

Back in April this year, the NHS set up a dedicated hotline for NHS staff struggling with their mental health during the outbreak.

Within the first three weeks, the hotline received nearly 60,000 calls, proving that the stresses of the pandemic were taking its toll on healthcare workers.

With uncertainty around the R-number rising and concerns we may soon face a second national lockdown, there are clear concerns the pandemic could cause longer-term damage on healthcare professionals’ mental health.Mental health does not discriminate, and related illnesses can creep up on anyone.

The impact of this hidden disease can have more serious, long lasting impacts – not only for the individual, but also their family and wider society.

But when it impacts those who care for us, it affects all of us.

With this in mind, it’s alarming to see a recent report highlight more than 10 million working days were lost to mental illness in the NHS across the UK.

In other words, this is the equivalent to half of all NHS staff – 700,000 people – being quarantined for 14 days, or every worker taking on average 7 days off work a year.

Sadly, given the increased workload and emotional strain caused by the pandemic, it’s likely the 2020 figure will be significantly higher than usual.

Poor mental health is an invisible illness right at the heart of our health service.

It’s the responsibility of policymakers to ensure resources are provided to overcome this challenge.

As someone who works with the public and private sector to support their digital transformation journeys, I’ve seen first-hand the positive role technology can play in helping hospital trusts relieve some of the strain and stress that impacts those on the frontline.

If every hospital in the UK had strong digital foundations, it could play a significant role in improving the mental wellbeing of the NHS workforce.

Take log-on times as an example. In a typical hospital, staff currently need to log-in to as many as 15 different systems when tending to a patient.

In addition to the sheer amount of time this takes, the numerous log-ins require staff to remember multiple, complex passwords.

To simplify the process, the same password may be reused for ever login point, which could easily compromise security.

Therefore, a single sign-on system can help radically reduce time spent logging into systems.

Making these small enhancements wouldn’t just drive efficiencies, but importantly, it would also allow the NHS workforce to triage and focus on treating and caring for patients.

In a time when those critically ill need undivided attention from staff, these digital foundations can bring significant advantages. If this was a requirement needed before the coronavirus outbreak, it is even more urgent now.

Fortunately, a lot many Trusts across the country have moved quickly in response to Covid-19; pushing forward with the digitisation needed to continue to provide vital healthcare and protect their workforce at this uncertain time.

For those Trusts heading in this direction, positive steps need to be made and built upon as we approach an uncertain winter.

For others, additional support will be needed to ensure they can catch up with their more digitally advanced peers, as soon as possible.

In my opinion, a three-pronged approach is required to support this much-needed digital transformation:Invest in expertise – We see too often NHS Trust Boards lack the detailed technological understanding that is needed to create and bring a digital vision to life.

It’s crucial every board has a chief information officer, or equivalently experienced individual, in place in the next four years, which is an important first step.

The importance of funding: The Government should set aside part of its increased NHS investment bringing it together with other existing funds dedicated to investment in digital transformation, to develop a single Smart Care Fund.

This can then be used to ensure that investment is accessible to all trusts to both achieve the required digital maturity standards, but also to make sure they are able to develop a future-proofed and flexible digital foundation.

Holding trusts to account: Those who fail to achieve the right level of digital maturity should be held to account. It is encouraging that the Secretary of State has shown a commitment to giving all providers clear standards which the CQC can measure them against. Given its importance, it is vital that this work takes place rapidly.

This is the three-pronged approach we need to set out a framework for how we can transform health service to better serve its staff. Across the country, many of us will owe our lives to the NHS when the pandemic is over, and more will be pondering how to give back.

Equipping our healthcare workers with strong and flexible digital foundations can play a critical role in supporting their mental wellbeing.

It’s the least we can do for those who have risked everything to care for us in our hour of need.

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