Digital solutions will play a central role in helping to reduce the NHS treatment backlog, industry leaders said this week.
Their comments come after a report from MPs called for a more-long-term plan to fix the NHS staffing crisis in order to cut record waiting times which have built up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The document, from the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, warns that nearly six million people in England alone are waiting for routine operations and procedures and says staff shortages are putting pressure on remaining staff who they fear will quit if the situation isn’t addressed.
And while MPs welcomed increased government funding – an extra £5.9billion unveiled in the autumn Budget on top of a funding package announced in September to create an extra nine million checks, scans, and operations – they criticised the delay in the publication of long-term plans to address the workforce crisis.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary who now chairs the committee, said the NHS was short of 93,000 workers and there was ‘no sign of any plan to address this’.
This report shows why the Government must deliver on its £5.9bn funding promise announced in the Autumn Budget to create a digital ecosystem that improves patient outcomes
And he described the staffing crisis as ‘entirely predictable’, adding that ‘The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce’.
The committee also wants the Government to publish an independent assessment of projected staff numbers every two years.
Commenting on the report, think tank, The Health Foundation, estimates that nearly 19,000 more nurses, and more than 4,000 more doctors, are needed in order to get back to the 18-week standard waiting time for treatment.
One of the main problems, according to the Royal College of Surgeons, is that, currently, one in 10 NHS staff members are at home ill or isolating due to Coronavirus.
As well as addressing the staffing crisis, industry leaders are pointing to evolving technology which, they claim, will also have a major part to play in the COVID-19 recovery plan.
Speaking to BBH Dr Murray Ellender, a practicing GP and co-founder of eConsult, said: “This report shows why the Government must deliver on its £5.9bn funding promise announced in the Autumn Budget to create a digital ecosystem that improves patient outcomes.
“The fact is the only way to fix the NHS waiting list backlog is to give patients a more-direct route to the right care.
So the time is right to take a different approach to connecting people, process, and data elements intelligently, productively, and reliably
“For example, data from eConsult shows that nearly half of UK adults who visited the emergency room in the last 12 months did not actually require urgent A&E treatment.
“This is a problem that can be solved by investing in digital triage which gets the right patients to the right point of care, unclogging the healthcare system and increasing efficiency.”
Peter Wilson, public sector industry architect at Pegasystems, adds: “In light of the recent report, there is obviously a need to create extra capacity in NHS, whether that’s more surgeries and/or clinical staff.
“But we also need to acknowledge that there are administrative and planning processes that can be streamlined and accelerated to remove bureaucratic bottlenecks to progress treatments and consultations faster, and ensure decisions are made sooner.
“Many individual parts of the wider NHS currently have Electronic Patient Record (EPR) technology and have done for a considerable time, building their delivery models around this investment.
“What is clear, however, is that despite the investment in inter-operability over the last 10 years, there is still very little ability to share records in a way that a properly-functioning health eco-system ultimately needs for success.
As a first step, it’s essential to have a unifying platform across the NHS that can start to tackle this in a progressive way to more intelligently reduce backlogs
“Furthermore, there is little evidence of anything more than rudimentary work management available in the investments so far, and certainly not the kind of wider eco-systemic approach that the upcoming Integrated Care System (ICS) model will ultimately demand.
“So the time is right to take a different approach to connecting people, process, and data elements intelligently, productively, and reliably; taking a more-pragmatic way to address this unification across the scale of NHS eco-system, while taking account of the real-time critical nature of work and breadth of activities.
“This forms the argument for a more-pervasive case management approach exploiting the fact that the NHS already has all the data it needs to reduce backlogs, it just needs to apply intelligence and automation to make it that insight actionable in a ‘case’.
“As a first step, it’s essential to have a unifying platform across the NHS that can start to tackle this in a progressive way to more intelligently reduce backlogs.
“A modern technology platform can also break down siloes and act as a central hub of information, overall improving the way the public service programmes operate day to day.
“Bringing data together more effectively to process the bulk of simple unambiguous cases, surfacing complexity/ambiguity in a more-efficient way for human review, fundamentally eliminates the need for big battalions of people doing low-level/low-value processing. And this is all the more important when the NHS needs to invest in so many more nurses and doctors, not administrators.
“This sets the scene for Artificial Intelligence coupled with Intelligent Case Automation to make a significant contribution in reducing the backlogs currently clogging up the NHS.”