Health Tech Trends 2022: what can we learn about digital transformation from the past year?

Rounding off our latest Health Tech Trends series, through which we explore the opinions of health and care leaders on a variety of topics, we asked our respondents for their thoughts on learnings from the past year. What is the lesson on digital transformation that stands out from the past 12 months?

The most popular theme about lessons learned surrounded the notions of acceptance and understanding. 32% of respondents highlighted that their key learning to take away from the past year involved a better understanding of what digitisation is or can offer, enabling them to move forwards with more clarity and purpose. A healthcare manager stated that they had learned that “more healthcare services at a distance is possible”, whilst the CIO of an ambulance service commented, “Technology can do it – it might take some time to set up and cost a bit, but it works.”

Others noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had led to a lot of learning for their organisations. “This past year has confirmed that necessity is the mother of invention,” said the managing director of a patient administration system provider. “Before the pandemic, I think we were all allowing ourselves to be pulled in multiple directions and setting long lists of priorities. The pandemic forced us to become pragmatic, to figure out exactly what things were most important, making us work far more efficiently. As a result, digital transformation has been accelerated at such an impressive rate as it became a necessity itself. Looking forward, it’s about maintaining a similar level of pragmatism so that the wheels can keep moving forward.”

The managing director of a healthcare company agreed that the need to build on pandemic-necessitated changes is their main takeaway: “As I see it, the pandemic has served as a ‘shock doctrine’, in so far as it has allowed us to push the envelope for digital transformation across the NHS and lay the foundations for a new way of working, with patients firmly in control of their own health and wellbeing.”

On a similar note, the lead pharmacist for an NHS trust commented that their key learning revolved around not letting that progress revert back to pre-pandemic ways: “Left alone NHS staff will start to de-digitise and reintroduce paper replacements for digital systems,” they predicted, “or at least remove the automated aspects and replace with manual control.”

Another recurring theme among the responses was communication. Respondents agreed that prioritising communication with the end user would be their main learning to take away from the past year; “keep talking to the end user,” one urged, whilst another commented on the need to maintain good communication throughout the process, and “communicate effectively with the end users prior to any release/upgrade.”

In addition, the issue of communication among staff was raised. The CEO of an organisation dedicated to developing artificial intelligence solutions in healthcare noted that they have learned to encourage “people in the NHS to openly talk about digital apps by name”, ensuring that they become part of a familiar and implemented routine. The healthcare communications director agreed that the best progress can be made when people talk to each other and work together to achieve a shared objective: “Most significantly, I think we have realised the true value of collaboration and the benefit of having multi-disciplinary teams focused solely on delivering transformation.”

The need for keeping things simple was brought up several times in survey responses. “The NHS tries to do too many things at the same time,” stated the CEO of a health technology start-up. The chief information officer of an NHS trust commented that the past year has taught them, “Don’t over-complicate and listen to your staff and patients.” Another respondent noted that the NHS has a tendency to complicate matters even when trying to avoid it, and shared that their key lesson would simply be, “Simplify.”

The issue of time as a much-needed resource was raised more than once; the director of a healthcare innovation organisation said that their main learning was “how long it takes” to make digital transformation happen, adding, “Think of a number and double or triple it.” The lead pharmacist for an NHS trust commented, “Clocks run faster thank you think. What seems a fair way in the future is rapidly today, then yesterday and you now have issues that could have been avoided if last minute responding was ditched in favour of planned management.”

On the topic of time, a respondent from a Northern Irish trust added that clinicians “need to be provided with the time and training” to be able to grow comfortable with new systems. Additionally, they commented that “clinical staff need to be involved at all stages and all levels of transformation.”

When it comes to design, “external systems providers need to work together more to enable interoperability”, said an NHS EPR specialist. “The abilities to interface are often severely hampered and makes life far more difficult than it needs to be.”

Another lesson learned for a health and care leader was the importance of leadership: “As always – digital innovation is only 20% of the problem – 80% is the people, without people on board you will achieve nothing no matter how good your digital innovation is.”

The operations manager for a primary care network, believes that the need for investment must be acknowledged and acted upon as a key lesson. “The NHS is decades behind any other modern service when it comes to tech,” they said. “Without serious investment we will continue to struggle along until we fail or something changes.”

Finally, for a practice manager, a practical benefit of digital systems was highlighted as the key learning: “Is it user-friendly for those who are deaf, who find speaking on the telephone difficult.”

That’s it from us on the latest Health Tech Trends series. If you haven’t already, catch up on the other instalments: so far we’ve covered the biggest challenges faced by digital transformation, what success for digital transformation in ICSs looks like, and what individuals and their organisations need to support them in achieving their digitisation goals.

Keep an eye out for our next survey in the next few weeks, which will be asking for health and care leaders to share their thoughts and opinions on the issue of culture change within the NHS.