The recently announced increase in healthcare spending comes as a much-needed boost for a sector whose resources have come under continual strain. Whilst this funding will help begin to address the long-held concerns about the lack of funding for the NHS, it’s clear that the way that investment in healthcare is rolled out needs careful consideration.
Any discussion on digital technology investment must be prefaced with the type of investment that is provided. Funding is frequently earmarked as capital expenditure when what the NHS requires is operational expenditure (the funds for running and maintaining new systems and technology).
It’s like being given the money for a deposit on a house without being able to afford the monthly installments. Too often, a lump sum of capital is made available – but then organisations have only two weeks to submit a bid and hope they are successful. Moving forward, the investment process must factor in the reality of healthcare organisations and enable them to plan programmatically for longer-term resource allocation.
Ultimately, funds will need to be focussed on improving productivity and the quality of the patient experience. The main pressure point in healthcare is the actual treating of patients, and so a priority for investment, perhaps, should not be diagnostics and imaging, which has been discussed recently but rather speeding up patient flow from admission to treatment to discharge, including unplanned admissions through Ambulances and A&E.
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At the heart of efforts to improve this process is the adoption of solutions that are interoperable. There must be safe and effective sharing of information between systems in a way that makes critical health data accessible and usable for all parties involved.
Crucially, we must ensure that healthcare professionals have access to the most up-to-date information about their patients so that they can make the best and most informed medical decisions at critical moments of care. As long as digital systems remain in silos, and vital patient information from other systems or organisations is unavailable, the effectiveness of any digital transformation efforts will be largely stymied.
Any plans to alleviate strain on the NHS in the long-term must also consider ways to reduce the need for hospitalisation (or the time patients need to spend in hospital) in the first place. Better understanding patients’ long-term health, and findings ways to monitor citizens’ health remotely more effectively, are critical steps to freeing up limited NHS resources.
Such efforts will need to be strengthened by more robust and widespread health data sharing practices, that can both help to enable safe care outside of the hospital setting and improve the efficiency and safety of care inside a hospital. This could involve improving the flow of patients through a hospital, reducing the number of delayed transfers of care into the community and sharing current medications and allergies at the point of care.
Investing in tech is important, but it cannot come at the expense of investing in the right people and the right skills. It’s important that talent accompanies the technology if we’re to truly help healthcare workers where they need it most. The biggest issue in the NHS right now is the shortage of staff, a strain that is set to worsen as the UK goes into winter. Therefore, there needs to be concerted, planned increases in spending so that workforce and digital transformation efforts can be planned for, and paid for, over the next five to ten years.
Written by David Hancock, Healthcare Executive Advisor at InterSystems