Three months into the year seemed like an appropriate time to catch up with health tech industry leaders, to find out about what they believe are the biggest current challenges facing healthcare.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic continues – but with some reason for optimism on that front, we asked our experts to delve deeper than that with their observations, as well as their predictions.
Here’s what we found out from their feedback…
Mental health to take centre stage
Mental health management cropped up plenty of times among our respondents, hinting that – unsurprisingly – it will require much of the industry focus in the aftermath of the pandemic and related social restrictions.
Ross Harper, CEO and Co-founder of Limbic, told us that while the past 12 months has largely been “focused on preparing healthcare workers for the predicted influx of patient referrals…psychological services such as talk therapy fundamentally rely on human relationships.”
Ross’s learnings included that “innovation in mental healthcare must focus on augmentation, not automation – that is, empowering clinicians so that they have the tools to support patients at scale, rather than seek to offer digital substitutes. Specifically, we uncovered a need for better information sharing between patients and clinicians.”
Dr Lloyd Humphreys, Head of Europe, at SilverCloud Health, added his thoughts too, emphasising the need for digital solutions to deliver blended care at scale.
“The challenge for the public sector and supporting service providers is meeting the escalating demand for mental health support by devising new, effective ways of delivering blended care at scale that draws more for instance on digitally delivered therapy, when face to face contact is restricted,” he told us.
“There is a lot of discussion about the extent of mental health issues from the pandemic but not enough clear action, and this includes the need to strongly support frontline health workers who are suffering stress, anxiety and burn out.”
A world of interoperability, integrated care and data sharing
Many of our commentators highlighted the undisputed speed of digital adoption over the past 12 months. But Jonathan Bingham, CEO of Janeiro Digital felt that despite that, “there is one core part of the NHS that has seen little change – collection, interoperability and sharing of patient data.”
He added: “Information relating to individual patients is not captured and stored in a consistent way. Even within the same hospital walls, there are often multiple patient record systems being used at any one time, each capturing, recording and storing information in different ways. This makes transferring accurate and timely patient data hugely challenging.
“As a result, creating a universal patient record, which has remained elusive so far, may well be the final chasm to cross. With discussion of new initiatives such as the vaccine passport and the growing need to provide an integrated approach to health and care provision, it is now more critical than ever to find a solution.”
David Newell, Managing Partner of Gemserv Health also highlighted that the “range of issues to be addressed” include “the need for joint working and collaborative action across both health and social care.”
David also turned his attention to ICSs, telling us that “to form fully functioning ICSs will require all stakeholders to align to a common vision.”
Key issues he felt included: governance and information sharing, and a “cohesive technological philosophy to form the basis of a digital transformation programme.”
Glen Hodgson, Head of Healthcare, GS1 UK, also got in touch to tell us of his “headline learnings” too. These included the “critical need for structured data” and “the importance of traceability.”
The “two go hand in hand,” he said, “this is the precursor to actually being able to deliver full traceability in a clinical setting.
“Irrespective of what the future has in store for healthcare, the priority should be on standardising data so that it can be shared seamlessly between systems and organisations. With the growing focus on integrated care, this quickly becomes a crucial patient safety requirement.”
Keeping up, keeping up
Among our snapshot of industry feeling, it also appeared as though there was a need to underline that, although great progress had been made, the pressure to improve and move forward needs to remain.
Martin Bell, Director of the Martin Bell Partnership summed this up with his thoughts that, “Continuing to invest in [digital health] during 2021, to not lose what has been gained, will be key.”
He also chose to remind us of the inequalities that still remain, perhaps more prominent than ever, and underpin the challenges facing healthcare. “With the disparities that exist in the UK and [that] have been exposed and indeed, increased during the pandemic,” he continued, “the ability for all organisations in a community to service not only the clinical, but the social needs of people will be even stronger.
“Technology is not always the answer, but it is most definitely one of the answers to many of the questions faced by health and care providers, commissioners and the people who use those services. Digital health is here to stay – we now need to make it work for everyone.”
Alan Lowe, CEO at Visionable, spoke along similar lines, highlighting: “The challenge for the NHS will come in sustaining a digital journey which has been largely propelled by the crisis we have been faced with and the consequent, necessary drive to find new solutions.”
Alan added that over the course of the next year, he anticipated that “appointments are going to be increasingly based on patient choice,” and “we expect that there will be also be an appetite from healthcare professionals for this blended approach to healthcare delivery. Importantly, patients and staff will not want things to simply return to how they used to be.”
Stephen Mackenney, Chief Executive Officer, C2-Ai, also underlined that “retaining the flexibility to manage COVID-19 patients while establishing efficient systems for dealing with other urgent or elective surgery and treatments will be key throughout the rest of the year.”
Looking a little further ahead, Stephen spoke about the challenge of “creating resilience and releasing capacity to ‘future-proof’ our healthcare.”
“Capitalising on the improvements possible from integrating and networking healthcare providers is one key facet,” he concluded.
Primary care in the limelight
Of course, it can be easy to focus on secondary care when talking about challenges. So, we reached out to tech industry experts in primary care too, to gauge their thoughts on the hurdles ahead.
Juliet Bauer, UK Managing Director at Livi, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted the healthcare sector with extraordinary challenges. Practices had to rapidly adapt to new patient demands and harness technology to administer high-quality care remotely. This digital first approach of reaching patients has eased pressure on the NHS and provided patients with access to healthcare more quickly and conveniently.
“This way of working will certainly continue post-lockdown,” Juliet continued, “digital platforms will accelerate better population health outcomes and transform the delivery of services to ensure patients can access the right care, in the right place, at the right time.”
Paul Bensley, CEO of X-on also spoke of primary care’s evolution, adding that he expects there to be “fundamental issues relating to technology that require attention to effectively support practices and GP homeworking”. For example, he highlighted, “the cost of calls as a result of practice communication being much more practice-to-patient than previously will also need to be addressed.”
“Joining up the IT is going to be a significant challenge,” he explained, “impacting on ability to share data and at the mercy of bandwidth and telephony quality. This needs to be centrally monitored to avoid regional disparity in delivery of general practice.
“The same applies for GP homeworking, as that becomes part of modern, pragmatic general practice, with effectiveness governed by quality of home networks.”
And the solution? “Innovations in the app space will be able to address escalating practice call and SMS costs,” Paul considered, “but commissioners and practices need to form clear and fair cost reduction strategies.”
Waiting lists and community diagnostic centres
Tom Scott of Alcidion, meanwhile, discussed waiting times.
“As we are seeing, the number of patients on waiting lists or waiting for preventative treatment in areas such as oncology are on the rise and will increase pressure on healthcare providers in the months to come,” he stated.
“Under the surface though,” Tom continued, “there are other challenges at play. The pandemic has shown that NHS organisations need to be able to procure easily and robustly from IT suppliers while maintaining value for money and accountability, yet also cut red-tape. Technology solutions that orchestrate care across a region but also allow the flexibility to deal with regional nuances and changes in healthcare delivery are a must.”
Jane Rendall, Managing Director at Sectra, for the UK and Ireland, also shared what she thought were priorities.
“Keeping as many well people out of hospital as possible has become an urgent priority as the NHS seeks to deal with an unprecedented backlog of elective surgery,” she told us, before explaining that, “one idea some trusts are exploring to help address the challenge is to create diagnostic centres in the community.”
Discussing how “the NHS has reached out to the community on a huge scale around testing and vaccine delivery for COVID-19, and in an extremely short time frame,” Jane wondered whether the same infrastructure and change in thinking could be used elsewhere.
“We might now ask how we can re-use that ground-work to allow hospitals to focus on the people who need them the most, and to allow community based diagnostic centres to carry out many more diagnostic functions that alleviate pressures on pathology, radiology and other ologies in acute settings,” she said.
“Doing this would require the right technology to be in place. We also need to think about using technology in ways that create low barriers of entry, and that could enable volunteers in the community to complete appropriate diagnostic functions without the need to use unfamiliar and highly specialist systems.
“This also raises the opportunity to advance the prevention agenda, with the potential to use such remote diagnostic centres in combination with population health analytics for targeted screening of at-risk patients, tailored to the specific challenges faced in different parts of the country.”
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