Guest blog: What next for Digital Health & Social Care?
There has been a flurry of publications from the government and NHS recently, including ‘Harnessing technology for the long-term sustainability of the UK’s healthcare system’, ‘What Good Looks Like’, ‘Who Pays for What’, ‘Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data (draft),’ and ‘Build Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care'. This is on the back of the ‘NHS Long Term Plan’ and ‘Health and Care Bill 2021-22’.
Technology played an important role during the pandemic – and the government and NHS are clearly committed to delivering a digitally enabled NHS and social care system.
But what does that mean and what is next for digital health and social care?
Putting people at the heart
Firstly, this is all about people. The NHS response to Covid was only possible due to a herculean effort by the staff, and we need to look after them during the next phase of recovery and transformation.
Secondly, technology is a means to an end. We must focus on what is important to people - access to high quality care when you need it, free at the point of need, wherever you live and irrespective of means.
The recent announcements share some common themes, including the move towards integrated care systems (ICS). These will be the organisational structures to deliver care locally and the vehicles for delivering population health, value-based care and tackling health inequality.
They will also be responsible for the ongoing virtualisation of care through tele-health, remote monitoring, and improved access for people to their health data, and looking at the opportunities afforded by the application of artificial intelligence.
Progress to be proud of
The past 18 months have demonstrated the importance of technology and data to support all of these components. ICSs are making great strides. Almost 90 percent of them now have a shared care record, which will have quality and efficiency benefits across health and social care.
Pioneers like Greater Manchester are using data, technology, and analytics in increasingly innovative ways. Developments include the ground-breaking introduction of the Safe Steps Covid Tracker into their shared care record, which is enabling health and social care professionals to better monitor care home residents and allowing them to intervene with the appropriate care when necessary.
Getting the basics right
However, there is still work to do. Digital maturity remains varied. Much of the NHS, outside primary care, does not have a mature electronic patient record. There is not ubiquitous use of electronic observations, electronic prescribing, and shared care records, which are all proven to improve care.
We haven’t yet sorted the standards and interoperability challenge that will deliver a health and care eco-system, and we don’t have the full trust of the country about the use of data. We also need to be aware of digital exclusion and worsening health inequality, the very thing we are looking to tackle.
Getting to scale
We can do things at scale when partnerships are formed between the NHS and industry. The CIPHA programme is one example. Created by the Cheshire and Merseyside ICS to deal with the immediate covid pandemic, using combined health and care data, it has grown far beyond that brief, and is being extended across England.
Transformation teams are developing use cases and sharing them across the NHS and social care. This includes virtual hubs and services created to optimise the management of long-term conditions such as blood pressure monitoring in hypertensive patients.
The pandemic as the great revealer
Covid shone a light on our health and social care system. It brought attention to health disparities and sparked some tough but important conversations. It has fast-tracked the digitalisation of health and social care.
It has also created some incredible digital leaders. There are inspiring stories of health care assistants, nurses, doctors, and social care employees spearheading the roll-out of digital solutions. The people on the front line are more involved, which is as it should be.
So, what is next for digital health and social care? In short, there is still a lot to do. We need to use the gains made through the pandemic as the catalyst to get the job finished. This will involve getting the basics right where they aren’t already in place at the same time as allowing the pioneers to push the boundaries. It will be our amazing NHS and social care staff who make the vision of a digitally enabled NHS a reality.