U.K. IT Industry Offers Strategies To Improve NHS

National Health Service must become more like online travel and retail sites to thrive in the 21st century, says Intellect report.
Britain's £110 billion ($169 billion) National Health Service is failing to fully exploit modern digital technologies, according to industry trade group Intellect.

Intellect, which touts itself as 'the voice of the UK's technology industry,' represents some 850 member organizations, accounting for approximately 10% of U.K. GDP and more than a million British jobs. Citing "sideways thinking" in the NHS, with patient information currently "buried deep in silos," the group says it has a practical set of solutions that could open up the NHS to a wider range of technology providers as well as improve mobile and connected technologies.

Intellect's associate director for its healthcare program, Jon Lindberg, told InformationWeek, "The U.K. is ready for digital health services, but we need to change the underlying information architecture the NHS is based on if we are to get there."

Lindberg continued, "The U.K. is a digitally advanced nation, with over 52 million of us accessing the Internet regularly and 70% of us searching for information and making transactions online; we have seen huge leaps forward in terms of digital services and products from other sectors. Wouldn't it be great if the NHS could run its business and services in a similar way?"

[ Home care workers use digital pens to send patient information. Read more at Mobile Tech Helps NHS Reach Remote Patients. ]

On Intellect's website, Lindberg expanded on why the British health sector needs to modernize just as other industries have: "If you think about it, the NHS deals with over a million patients every 36 hours and over 250 million interactions a year. Is a paper and postage system that can take months the most effective way of providing care today? In any other industry that volume of interaction would be ripe for digital transformation."

But while industries like travel, banking and retail have all successfully embraced digital services with millions of interactions taking place online every day, Lindberg explained, the NHS simply hasn't. That doesn't mean successive governments haven't called for improvements and more aggressive use of technology to boost efficiency and bolster patient care -- the current Coalition's call for a 'paperless NHS' is the latest example of this. But such programs have gotten stuck in an overly silo-based approach to information, as described in Intellect's study, The NHS Information Evolution.

According to Lindberg, the NHS must do two things to "punch holes through those silos:" Push for more open standards across the NHS so that more technology can be introduced from a bigger vendor group, and adopt many of the same approaches of more successful e-commerce providers.

For example, the best way to deal with the persistent problem of missed appointments might be to adopt a late room discount booking system like U.K. ecommerce leader Another improvement might be to take a tip off Amazon and offer care packages delivered anywhere they are required.

Previous strategies have been predicated on using the information architecture that's in place today; however, systems and services designed and implemented locally often work well but end up burying information, making it unavailable to those on the outside. Instead, Lindberg said, "What needs to be explored is architecture that allows information to flow horizontally and follow the patient." He suggested the best approach would be to hang such new systems off centrally managed national systems like the NHS' N3 network while encouraging as much openness at the local level as possible.

These suggestions should be taken seriously, as the U.K.'s Department of Health has asked Intellect to come up with recommendations on how to achieve a 'paperless NHS.' There may be real clues here on the future design, development and implementation of a new digital architecture for the NHS.

Regulatory requirements dominate, our research shows. The challenge is to innovate with technology, not just dot the i's and cross the t's. Also in the new, all-digital The Right Health IT Priorities? issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: Real change takes much more than technology. (Free registration required.)

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing