Among the many reasons to move to digital technology, the NHS is responsible for around four per cent of the nation’s carbon emissions. Edward Belgeonne, founder of Bantham Technologies tells Health Tech World, why the digital revolution is so important
Just twelve months ago the UK health secretary Matt Hancock reaffirmed that the appropriate use of technology would be ‘critical’ to the future of the NHS. This is especially true if its goal of becoming the world’s first carbon net-zero national health system is to become a reality, and the onset of COVID-19 has only served to further highlight the importance of technical solutions to deliver large-scale change at pace. The notion of widespread reforms in the aftermath of the pandemic further underlines the timeliness of this issue.
Hugely significant progress has been made. We’ve seen more collaboration and adoption of new tools and technologies over the last couple of years than ever before – from the speed at which the Nightingale hospitals were deployed, through to the roll out of NHS COVID app, which, according to Statista, had almost 21m downloads as of December 2020. But despite these achievements, there still remains plenty more work to do.
Working towards a paper-less or paper-light NHS
As the largest employer in Britain, the NHS is responsible for around four per cent of the nation’s carbon emissions – similar in scale to the airline industry. And a significant contributor to that huge volume is paper.
Despite widespread recycling efforts, a recent report revealed that in 2019 the NHS used 1.9 billion sheets of A4 – enough to go round the world 174 times. Add to this the 134 million envelopes used by the organisation annually, and it is clear that the organisation still has some way to go in its quest for carbon neutrality.
Way before COVID, the paper-less or paper-light revolution was already well underway, albeit with plenty of scope for further improvement. With the ever-expanding raft of technologies at our fingertips, almost every process in almost every organisation can now be digitised and automated, consigning paper’s place, like cash and the daily commute, to the history books.
Courier companies still using paper delivery notes. There’s an app for that. Legal documents need signing? See e-signatures. Would you like a receipt? No I’m fine, thank you, just e-mail me a copy.
A case in point
There are many excellent examples of progress in the NHS, one being a Trust which approached us searching for a solution to reduce the time its nursing staff spent on administration out in the community. The solution needed to be highly scalable without impacting the day to day care activities of frontline staff. Working in direct partnership with the Trust, it didn’t take long to implement an Integrated Patient Information Database (PID), which automated repetitive tasks relating to the completion of patient forms and enabled the seamless upload of the completed forms back into the the Trust’s back-end systems.
The results were significant, and immediate. In the first year of implementation, the Trust, which now processes more than 36,000 e-forms a year, used 166,000 fewer sheets of paper, saved over 500,000 miles in annual travel, and reduced its CO2 emissions by over 180 tonnes. What’s more, 185 employees were estimated to have saved more than 11,000 working hours in travel and administration, equating to an annual cost saving of more than £200,000. Ultimately, and most importantly, the technology has increased the Trust’s annual operational capacity by over 18,000 outpatient visits. That’s a material operational benefit and a great example of how technology can raise productivity levels using existing resources.
A recent survey by the General Medical Council (GMC) suggested that a quarter of medics feel ‘burned out,’ with around half feeling routinely exhausted. Another survey by the NHS reported that at least a fifth of its staff wants to leave. Much of this stress is caused by the staggering level of administrative and documentation processes that physicians face in their daily working lives.
Another recent study concluded that physicians were spending, on average, 11 hours each week completing clinical documentation. The report went on to say that some staff are be spending up to 50 per cent of their time on administrative tasks as they try to cope with the administrative burden placed upon them. In other words, some care physicians spend only half of their week actually caring for patients; surely can’t be ideal for either patient or the carer themselves?
That not withstanding, digitising data is about so much more than simply achieving efficiencies and cost savings. Digital data capture is far more accurate than its manual counterpart (crucially important in patient care) and far more flexible in its application. Digital data can be uploaded and accessed from anywhere, any-time, on any device . Analysis of digital data can be carried out quickly and efficiently, bringing with it improved insight, and ultimately better patient outcomes.
From an environmental perspective, digitisation of data and the use of e-forms more generally, will play a significant role in the NHS’s fight against climate change through the reduced use of paper and significant reductions in travel and water (it takes 10 litres of water to make a single page of A4). On its own, the digitisation of paper-based processes will not by itself achieve the carbon zero nirvana we all strive for, but it is a big stride in the right direction and should be encouraged wherever possible. Practically speaking, digitising paperwork and handwritten notes is actually not difficult to achieve and, importantly, it doesn’t require wholesale change to working practices.
An ode to paper
Can we really chase paper out of the NHS? The answer is largely yes, and with a rocky couple of years to come for health providers, has there ever been a better time to think about, and act upon, how we can all strip out cost, drive up efficiency, and make a positive impact of the new normal? What is certain is that the NHS faces pressures like never before, not least in trying to cope with its waiting lists for clinical procedures which have increased by 150 per cent (currently standing at 10 million) since the COVID 19 pandemic reached our shores last year.