Later this year the Scottish Government is to publish the Digital Health and Social Care Strategy and, in advance of this, the Health & Sport Committee has undertaken an inquiry into Technology and Innovation in the NHS. The strategy is to bring together previous strategies - including those related to telehealth, telecare and ehealth - and will enable an expansion in the delivery of the “real benefits” offered by digital services to clinicians and patients alike.
Given the rate at which new technology is becoming the mainstream for so many aspects of how we live our lives, many have said the pace of change has been too slow in the medical world. Requirements of confidentiality and the sheer scale of tasks, like the development of the electronic patient record amid times of austerity, go some way to explain the delay in progress, but the responses to the Committee’s call for evidence show mounting dissatisfaction and a growing motivation for change.
The most recent Registrar General’s report suggests that if current trends continue, the next 25 years will see an increase of 1% in the working-age population while the pensioner population in Scotland will increase by 28%. The need for innovation to reduce costs and improve care for an ageing population and a rising number of people living with chronic conditions is obvious throughout the responses to the inquiry. Few of us need to be reminded of the strain health and social care services are under, due in part this increasing demand and, if the castigations of the opposition parties are relied upon, the underfunding and understaffing of services. Labour’s criticism of the Government’s maintenance of an “undervalued and overworked” NHS workforce does find some support in the responses to this inquiry. A majority of submissions disclose concerns that ongoing austerity in the NHS is preventing training and investment in improving services, with many stating staff and resources are already stretched too thin to allow the time needed to help develop, implement and utilise any technological innovations.
Many respondents also expressed their woe at the lack of an effective multi-agency approach to healthcare. Joined up service delivery, enabled by connected and compatible technology systems, has been repeatedly called for in a number of areas as part of a more efficient and effective NHS. The development of the electronic patient record is an example of the type of innovation that could produce less cumbersome data-sharing procedures and more efficient throughput.
Some of the hopes expressed in much of the evidence submitted so far to the inquiry are that more user-friendly lines of communication and an effective multi-agency will also better enable the personalisation of healthcare. As set out in the Nursing 2030 Vision recently, efforts in this area are increasing and the role of technology is key. One of the main components of this style of healthcare is to empower patients to monitor and manage their conditions. There have been many attempts at this kind of innovation (my diabetes my way and askmygp are examples), but often uptake by patients has been poor and systems criticised as unnecessarily complicated. Relatedly, the standard of connectivity will also be one of the most significant make-or-break factors in the implementation of new technologies in the NHS; an aspect of this inquiry that strikes a cord with many calling for the rollout of superfast broadband to be expedited.
The Committee have undertaken an inquiry that deals with an area work where if improvements are made, they will enable greater change across health and social care services, so patients have more efficient and healing encounters with their NHS, while the staff whose workload seems ever-increasing may find some respite.
At a time of great change more broadly with the integration of health and social care and a greater focus on preventative, primary care, many will hope the fruits of the Committee’s labour will provide a booster shot to this area of work. Although the content of any conclusions that the Committee might reach is not yet known, they will hopefully come good in encouraging and directing change in a more effective way to produce widespread technological progress in the NHS.
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