NHS new normal – changing technology & workplace practices

We are facing a changing world of almost unparalleled levels within our lifetimes. The continued fight against the Covid-19 pandemic has seen massive changes and responses from the NHS, not least in the dramatic advances in the use of digital healthcare services.

I will stop for a moment to say a sincere thank you for all the support and bravery that everyone in the NHS is showing to lead the fight we are in. It is an awe-inspiring thing to witness, and I hope we never forget or take for granted the sheer determination, skill, selflessness and commitment we have benefited from now and for the future.

We are seeing the health of human, financial, and businesses fighting for survival as the challenges of lockdown fundamentally change how the UK is working and coping with the challenges being faced.

We recently looked at how the speed of innovation has been influenced by Covid-19, new approaches and new technologies across HMRC and NHS that have been implemented in a fraction of the time than they would usually do.

The NHS had to create an online booking system so key workers can book tests to see if they have Covid19. Without technology and the digital skills to utilise the technology, this projects would have been improbable – especially within such compressed timelines – a decade ago. These examples show technologies and digital skills, creating solutions to very human and organic problems.

Covid-19 accelerating digital change in NHS

The NHS has multiple challenges across its services that it has had to find solutions for. No development is done in isolation – in fact, multiple stakeholders are involved, and agile work practices have been developed with the end-user always firmly in mind.

The NHS blog highlights the changing mindsets, approaches and technology-driven solutions that are aimed at the wellbeing of the users. In their Birth in a time of solitude article, specialist midwife, Lorri Allport, looks at how technology has helped support women through pregnancy, birth and post-natal care in rural Lincolnshire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The article talks about how technology has been pivotal in delivering service during the lockdown, highlighting video and secure comm’s platforms, “the move to video consultations has been extremely positive. With the support of our Trust implementation team, we set up Attend Anywhere, a video call service for patients with pre-arranged appointments”.

They also highlight how the pandemic has accelerated digital change, “We were previously looking at video platforms with our Local Maternity Service, but the pandemic has certainly moved this along much more quickly. The software is secure and women can be assured that communications are confidential. Seeing our patients as well as hearing them makes a huge difference.”

The necessity for digital transformation means teams involved have had to work faster than ever before, Dean Vipond, Lead Designer at NHS UK, talked about this in his recent article, How should service design react to COVID-19? “It’s a strange time to be working in service design, interaction design or product development right now. We have probably had to work faster and think more clearly than we ever had to before. This stuff is life and death, and everything needs delivering yesterday. But it’s important that the people designing services don’t let the situation get to them – getting the basics right is more important than ever”.

This and other digital transformation projects in the NHS have drawn the focus in on how to develop great digital products – and what skills and people are needed to make this happen. Dean Vipond goes on to talk about this, “Make it usable and accessible. Working at speed is no excuse for cutting corners with the usability or accessibility of a project. You may be digitally literate, with an up-to-date phone and good broadband, but many people aren’t.”

As the NHS are working to develop new mobile products and digital technologies that can help in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is the need for agile approaches and people with experience of this approach.

In the NHS X article How we are assessing COVID-19 apps the need for bringing the right technology together and testing and evaluation are highlighted. “At this critical time, in which products are being built and scaled at pace, it is as important as ever to undertake these assessments to ensure they are safe to use. So, we are currently fast-tracking assessments with these existing standards to ensure that we can get these offerings out to those who need them. We are also providing additional support to developers through the process.

A digital new normal for the NHS

So, with this interconnectivity, across departments, subject matter experts, doctors, GPs and patients are we seeing a moment in time, or a new approach that will be embedded into NHS?

In Consultant Connect’s, Planning for the new ‘normal’ in the NHS”, they suggest new technology means there’s no going back. The NHS has modernised more in the past five weeks than it has in the past five years. “Hundreds of thousands of GP consultations moved online or onto the telephone. Secondary care is deep into the process of enabling hospital appointments to be delivered via phone or video. At Consultant Connect we have seen a large uptake of telephone advice by healthcare organisations around the country, increasing our service coverage by over a third to over 25 million patients. The impact has been immediate and, amazingly, as positive as the technology providers have been promising it would be.”

This observation is supported by a recent BBC article by Hugh Pym highlighting some key changes around increased use of technology and remote service delivery and how this could be the new normal.

The article refers to virtual consultations via video link during the Covid-19 crisis proving to be popular with doctors and patients, and how they seem set to take an increasing share of outpatient appointments. Also, GP practices report an increase from around 20% of patient contacts being by phone rising to about 75%.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, representing trusts in England, said: “They will build on the innovations they’ve developed over the last two months, like the 6,000 patient consultations a day now being delivered online, compared to 200 before the crisis.”

Developing the digital skills needed in the NHS

As the pace of changed approach continues – adapting existing situations with new solutions, then how will the NHS continue to develop when it comes to hiring and developing its staff to continue this momentum?

What will the NHS need to do to future proof its workforce ensuring that it has the right skills to keep pace with the rate of digital transformation. Hiring and developing staff to increase their capacity to adopt new skills and technology is now a crucial part of hiring and developing staff.

Health Business UK identified the need for the NHS to change its emphasis towards a more preventative service which promotes wellness and health rather than addressing illness, and how this required a fundamental shift to different types of skills that utilise new technology into service delivery.

The NHS has the opportunity to reshape the workforce to meet patient needs using a skill mix that utilises new technology. Therefore, digital skills will need to be brought into the NHS, as well as upskilling programmes, to develop the digital skills of existing staff.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has driven digital change, we have seen the increasing importance of digital and technology-based roles in software development, business and data analysis and cyber security. The NHS now has to look at how best to get these skills into their functions.

We have seen the increased use of apprenticeships to help deliver these skills into organisations. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy has promoted the use of apprenticeships generally, and higher level tech and digital programmes mean apprenticeships are now a viable option to the NHS, not just to hire digital talent but also as a way of developing existing staff.  

The challenge is to find the balance of the right skills to meet the needs of the future. This will, of course, require the hiring of traditional healthcare skills, but they will need to be supplemented with the digital and analytical skills to ensure the NHS is delivering in the digital age.

We all know that NHS has had ongoing challenges in recruitment drives. The principle goal is always getting the right people, with the right skills and at the time needed to deploy them. It has many unique challenges, and now it needs to continue its dynamic evolving approach into its needs for skills now and into the future. Building a sustainable model – hiring experienced workers supplemented with a clear talent plan for creating younger talent pipeline for the future, and ensuring they are developed and retained is fundamental to the answering of this – be brave in your thinking and approach in this new world!

We explored digital skills for the NHS in our free webinar “The NHS & Digital Skills for the new Normal”.