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How Digital Innovation Will Drive The NHS

Tuesday, 17 September 2013.

Tony Speakman (pictured), Regional Director at FileMaker International, shares why The National Health Service (NHS) is now ripe for digital innovation.

tonyspeakmanFrom its inception, the NHS has been a political hot potato. The current government has come under fire for what is perceived by some as modernisation, others as wholesale destruction. Personal opinion aside, the announcement by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that he intends to make the NHS “paperless” by 2018 will trigger a step change in the way it deals with its often unstructured data.

This push to use technology to drive efficiency was initiated by Hunt’s predecessor, Andrew Landsley, who pledged to bring about an “information revolution” in the NHS. The problem of information and how it should be managed often acts as a fault line in the healthcare system. The scope of the NHS, both in the geographical terms of the area and individuals it must serve and the philosophical terms of its guiding ethos and mission, means that it must handle truly vast amounts of information.

Data in the NHS is not simple numerical inputs or uniform categories but complex, unstructured data. Adding to the complexity, the nature of patient confidentiality means that access to this information must be tightly controlled: this is big data at its most unwieldy. In addition, failures from both this and previous governments to maintain data integrity and restrain budgets have caused public perception of government-driven IT projects to become somewhat tarnished.

Comparisons suggest themselves between the challenges currently faced by the NHS and those tackled by businesses in an economic environment which demands increased efficiency and reduced costs without a drop in service. In recent years recognition of the ability of big data and database management to overhaul business efficiency, and help overcome such obstacles has steadily grown amongst entrepreneurs and company leaders. In response, they are choosing to adopt technological tools such as database software to help them harness the insights that big data offers.

Broadly speaking, the NHS has not rushed to follow this lead. It has not yet turned database management software to its advantage or adopted a system that would increase the usefulness and flexibility of its unstructured data. The process of submitting and resubmitting the same personal data to different NHS bodies has become familiar to patients. Furthermore, unstructured data input and recovery can reduce the time that healthcare professionals can spend caring for patients.

Database software helps businesses in all industry sectors to gain insights into their operations and boost productivity. In a similar way, database management could free the NHS and its staff from paper-based records and act as an efficiency enabler.

From big paper to insight

Lack of integration, lack of transparency and lack of consistency can stunt any organisation – and the NHS is no different. The reforms should work to increase these things by requiring every local NHS group to have its own medical records database, which is securely available online and able to integrate with the health service as a whole.

In the future, different professionals involved in the treatment of one patient will be able to instantly share information about their care. Patient details will not be kept in silos but will be accessible where they are needed most – at the point of treatment – and only by those with permission to access them. Furthermore, access to real time data could help regulators to identify anomalies or burgeoning problems across the service. A recent analysis of how the NHS in England treats data, the Caldicott review, has urged the service to overcome a “culture of anxiety” and share information more effectively, arguing that this could improve patient care.

St Helens and Knowsley NHS Trust recently announced it was giving GPs a service to digitise, store and give staff immediate access to patient records. As part of this announcement it revealed that staff have in the past spent long periods of time manually searching paper records for specific past referral letters, test results or details of a GP’s written account of a previous consultation. Its future plans mean all this information will be available remotely to give an immediate, holistic and secure patient overview.

A number of healthcare sectors have already introduced technology that streamlines their operations, demonstrated by the range of healthcare customers that are using our database software to bring about improvements in efficiency. One such example – Free Diagnostic Pathology Software Project – reveals that the impact of this technology is not limited to the “front line” of the GP surgery; using the FileMaker Pro solution, those involved in the project created database management software to improve the speed and accuracy of cancer reporting, using easy to use forms to input information such as patient details and observations that had previously been stored as unstructured data.

By deploying a technology that is simple-to-use and does not require management overheads or IT specialists, the project has helped to reduce the time required by pathologists to input findings and, as a result, to diagnose cancer. It can be used on both computers or mobile devices allowing hundreds of simultaneous users and keeping costs to a minimum.

Granted, healthcare provision is not the same as purchasing groceries in the supermarket. It is nonetheless important that it works for those it is designed to serve – whether they are patients or customers – just as a business, if it is to survive, should be aligned to the needs of its customers and focus on generating the best possible value for them. The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, for example, is moving to replace traditional paper patient forms with electronic versions. These can be automatically analysed and securely synched to desktops to provide doctors with more relevant data prior to seeing a patient and negate the need for filling in multiple questionnaires.

The business environment has been successfully and securely dealing with large volumes of data for a number of years now – and the NHS could learn a great deal from business’ successful use of database management to drive efficiency, increase flexibility and generate value.

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