Healthcare is a sector that has remained relatively untouched by digital transformation in comparison with other industries but, speaking at London Tech Week, NHS director of digital development Sam Shah argues this needs to change in order to provide patients with a better experience - while potentially saving lives

digital healthcare

Digital transformation is a term that means different things to different industries.

To some, it’s old-hat and represents something they did a long time ago – but to others, namely healthcare, it reflects an as yet unfulfilled goal.

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) provides healthcare treatment to millions across the country but, according to its director of digital development Sam Shah, this could be vastly improved through digital means.

“The opportunity to use tech to improve our NHS is absolutely massive,” he said during the Re-engineering The Digital Healthcare Experience event at London Tech Week 2018.

“Speed and efficiency is everything when it comes to healthcare and I think this is where the role of digital comes in.”

Digital services like NHS Online 111 are already in place but Mr Shah feels more needs to be done to deliver the kind of experiences consumers have become used to in other parts of their life.


Reducing costs, improving experiences

The NHS spends about £150bn per year on everything from hospital maintenance to emergency patient treatment.

However, as Mr Shah alluded to in his talk, the service is in the news on an almost daily basis for issues ranging from lengthy waiting times to the need for more funding.

“We need to reduce these costs while simultaneously improving efficiency and creating a better experience for our patients,” he said.

“Every interaction between patients and the NHS could be made better through digital means and subsequently drastically improved.”

NHS England director of digital development Sam Shah speaking at London Tech Week

More than one million patients use the NHS every 36 hours and the number of hospital admissions reached 16.252 million in 2015/16 – 28% more than in 2005/06.

Average life expectancy is rising and prolonged healthcare measures come with that – all of which requires more treatment, more staff and more money.

But if digital methods could improve the accessibility and distribution of healthcare, those costs would be reduced, argued Mr Shah.

He added: “The ultimate goal is to be able to give patients the same experience using the NHS as they would in other aspects of their life.

“I’m sure most of you go here by the tube or bus, you might have tapped in using your oyster card or you payment card – we want that kind of simplicity to be present in the relationship between patients and the NHS.

“But there’s also the employee side of things too. At the NHS, we have a staff of about 1.5 million, which includes doctors, nurses, clinicians, support staff – everyone who keeps the service running day in and day out.

“The way we integrate digital improvements into the NHS has to come easily to them – if they can’t learn it in, say, four hours in a meaningful way, it’s not worth using – their jobs are so important that there’s no time to get things wrong.”


More progress needed

Trials for NHS 111 Online began last year and have proved effective in a number of cases and hospitals.

“In some ways, we’re getting closer to our goal. The NHS 111 Online service is being used more and more – we know that during this Easter almost 9% of people went through NHS Online 111, which is great,” said Mr Shah.

“But we also know in places like Australia the numbers for their equivalent digital service is much higher – so why in London and the UK with all our technological prowess can’t we deliver the same?”

“Every minute we can streamline the patient experience is another minute we can spend on the next patient, which could save a life – that’s the potential of digitising healthcare.

“Things like NHS 111 Online are a start but we need to do more – we’ll be launching a number of digital measures for our health service later this year.

“These will give patients the chance to book online consultations – online triage methods will be used to make sure the people who need treatment immediately get that treatment.”

Mr Shah refered to the required shift in attitude as the biggest challenge in the way of digital transformation fulfilling its potential in the healthcare sector.

Before people start using digital methods to provide diagnoses and various healthcare services, they need to trust the tools at their disposal, he argued.

“It’s about getting people to realise how much better their healthcare experience could be if it were more digital,” added Mr Shah.

“So many people end up missing appointments due to traffic or emergencies – imagine if you could do it all online – right at the moment you need. It’s things like that will change people’s perspective.

“Eventually, we want to create a single online place where patients can get all the healthcare services they need.

“We’re also looking a biometrics, genomics and AI – on which I’m no expert, but we have people who are – as ways of further improving the patient experience.”