Digital Transformation in the NHS: Creating sustainable demand management


Embarking on a digital transformational journey can be a daunting task in General Practice. Whilst practices understand the benefits of embedding technology to improve patient care and reduce pressures on staff, they are just too busy trying to meet the overwhelming demand. Here we lay out the initial mindset we think you need in order to get the best out of the technology available, and the steps you can take to get you started on the road to sustainable demand management.

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New technology is changing the way in which we approach health and social care. The sector has been under increasing pressure to deliver with shrinking funding. Providers across the country are looking for ways in which they can use technology to improve services at a budget, and to address the long-term pressures that the system is under. Digital change shares a number of similarities with other types of clinical change, but is in a unique position to help providers adapt to the changing world around us.

With the drive from the NHS to improve digital understanding across the board for patients and staff alike comes the inclusion of the digital and transformation lead as part of the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS). Many practices are looking at how to get the most out of the funding.

In order to get the most out of the funding available, we need to take a moment to understand what the key objectives within the practices are and we need to understand that this is about supporting a long term move towards the utilisation of technology within the sector, not just by the patients but by the staff as well. Evaluating the current situation within the practice is key to recognising success and failure, and understanding the truly complex changes that digital technology can bring.

There are a number of smaller goals that we can focus on, and use as stepping stones towards the greater objective of better serving patients by embedding sustainable demand management processes.

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One key factor is understanding the population serviced by the practice. Not everyone is able to access resources and services through technology; many people lack access to a device that can be used to access the services, and even amongst those who do, there are plenty of people who lack the necessary skills to use the devices and access the available services. 

When pushing digital transformation, it is important to take the disparity in basic access to the digital world into account. If we do not consider this issue carefully it can easily lead to us inadvertently creating an even larger inequality in health care. 

We can look at organising up-skilling workshops, whether they are in person or virtual will depend on the level being taught. Helping the patients become self-sufficient in the use of technology not only benefits them (in all aspects, not just health) but also will in the long term serve to take the strain off the local practices. We should be looking towards building a sustainable model for the use of technology in healthcare. 

Just taking these initial small steps can mean that the steps we take later in the digital literacy drive can be so much more effective. 

The patients should be pushed towards digital access at every touch point they have with the practices: within the walls of the practice itself, on the phone, via email. Every person we encourage to use the digital resources available is likely to be one fewer person taking up the time of the on-site staff. Just mention to the patient that they can do this online next time they are in the practice, just prompt them to download certain apps rather than waiting in the call queue; this can be done simply by using the EDATT framework. Remind the patients when emailing them that they can do certain tasks online and do not have to call or come in in person for everything. This is about changing behaviour in the long term, and using that change to help take pressure off certain services. Studies have shown that repeated affirmation at multiple touch points is a powerful method for encouraging behavioural change. 

We all know how tough it can be to recruit the right people, and it is being made even harder by the uncertainty surrounding the funding; how long will the funding for that specific role be in place? Are PCNs even going to be a thing after 2024? It may be best to look at solutions that do not necessarily require hiring for a full-time role. Perhaps look at a fixed term contract for someone already in the digital transformation space, or bringing consultants on board to tweak certain aspects of the digital journey.

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