How digital technology is essential in supporting the NHS to deliver care during the pandemic, and beyond
Graham King, Chief Information Officer at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
During the Covid-19 crisis, at a time when everyone has felt so far apart, digital technology has been central to bringing us all together again. This has had the greatest impact across the NHS, where IT teams have worked around the clock to use the best available technology and to quickly develop new technology to keep our health service going when it was under unbelievable strain. It has been incredible to be part of that collective endeavour and my vision is to continue this culture of digital adoption way beyond the pandemic.
Before Covid-19 hit last year, the drive to accelerate the use of digital technology at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had already begun. The Trust moved to digital clinical records in 2019. This prompted a culture change across the organisation which saw clinicians shift away from old paper based systems and laid the foundations of our work in digitising the patient journey when the pandemic hit in 2020.
People at our Heart
Patient care and safety have always been at the centre of everything we do and back in March 2020 we instantly knew that we needed to find a way of connecting patients with our clinical staff – safely and quickly. The project team at Newcastle engineered a systematic transition from face-to-face appointments to a trust-wide digital offer of video consultations. This enabled patients to access healthcare from the safety and comfort of their home and gave our clinical teams the tools they needed to continue their care. This not only reduced the need for people to visit our site, it also meant that patients didn’t have the stress, time or cost implications of travelling to a face to face appointment.
We wanted to make sure it was still possible for families to see and speak to their loved ones in hospital safely, so we set up a system for virtual visiting. We also established a keep in touch service which enabled patients’ relatives to send messages onto wards.
Keeping our staff connected with each other has also been vital in the fight against Covid and at the start of the pandemic we provided thousands of agile workers with the digital tools they needed to continue to do their jobs. This included launching Microsoft Teams to support a virtual working environment throughout the Trust.
Digital tools to do the job
Technology has been central to helping the NHS deliver care throughout the pandemic, by providing staff with the digital tools they need to do their job in the most efficient and effective way possible. For instance, our information services team have worked hard to transition the Trust to new technologies that will improve the accessibility of information and make the best use of data captured in our clinical systems.
Our project team also led on creating a fully digitising Nightingale Hospital North East. We worked to ensure that the whole operation was completely digital (with the exception of two pieces of paper which required signatures), with critical information flowing to a central command room. We followed this by acting as the host organisation for the regional vaccination programme.
At a wider level, the adoption of new technology through the Great North Care Record project has also enabled us to deliver collaborative care throughout the North East and North Cumbria. I think that there is a misconception with members of the public that their health care record is already joined up and that a GP can automatically view the same information as a paramedic or a hospital doctor. However that is not the case – and with so many people being admitted into hospital during the pandemic, shared records have been critical to helping clinicians to deliver outstanding care during unprecedented times.
Joined up care
Over the last year, the Great North Care Record has securely enabled all GPs, most hospital Trusts (including North East Ambulance Service and appropriate mental health data), and most recently the first Local Authority connection for social care data. The aspiration is that this information will be available from all primary care practices, NHS Trusts and local authorities across the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System in 2021. It is without a doubt that during the pandemic our partners could see more than ever the advantages of joined up working as this information has been used widely – with approximately 270,000 views per month, that’s over 9,000 times a day that shared care records are being used in the delivery of front line patient care.
During the course of 2021 we will be introducing the capability for patients to interact digitally with their clinical records this will start with appointments and their correspondence made available through the Great North Care Record in collaboration with the NHS APP. This will eventually give our patients access to all of their information from all NHS organisations in the North East and North Cumbria ICS.
The last 12 months have given us a radical opportunity to witness how new technology can reimagine how the NHS delivers care and there have been numerous times over the last year when we have had to move at tremendous speed to support our colleagues in the fight against Covid. For instance, we set up a digital vaccine trial in just 48 hours which included online booking, text message results and automated reporting.
Pioneering for the future
Alongside our support in the fight against Covid we have also been working on a number of innovative projects that aim to improve patient experience and outcomes. For instance, we launched a Myskin Selfie app for patients to send pictures for clinician review – reducing unnecessary hospital appointments and speeding up access to diagnosis and treatments. We also implemented pioneering Artificial Intelligence to assist with identifying acute stroke from brain CT scans, making this available to the regional network.
As well as looking forward, I also think that it is important to look back and learn. As we come out of the pandemic we will be spending time reviewing the technology we have implemented and revising this to ensure it is as safe as possible and is being used to its best potential.
Over the last year, technology has shown us that it can bring us together and how we are stronger when we are connected. It has also given us a taste of new, innovative and improved ways of working. We want to maintain this momentum, creativity and adaptability to continue to improve the NHS patient journey and care throughout 2021 and beyond.
For a summary of our work at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust over the last year, see our digital acceleration infographic:Newcastle Hospitals' Digital Acceleration Infographic – One Year On