The Butterfly Effect in Digital Health: How Small Changes Make a Big Impact

Chris Yeowart, General Manager, Business Development, at Wellbeing Software, explores how Trusts can introduce small changes in healthcare IT but gain the biggest returns in clinical outcomes

In a recent report, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated up to 14 million people could be on waiting lists in England by next autumn, and there are around 5 million patients currently waiting for routine operations and procedures, many of whom are in pain.

The NHS backlog has fast become a top priority for the UK government. To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, they have pledged a further £5.4bn over the next six months in England, with £1.5bn allocated to help hospitals recover scheduled surgery. How this will be spent is uncertain, but with normal winter pressures fast approaching, it’s important that the NHS takes the necessary measures now to avoid further disruption and delays.

One significant consequence of the pandemic has been the accelerated adoption of digital or virtual healthcare solutions to offset the restricted access to in-person appointments and routine procedures. The figures speak for themselves, with the industry estimated to be valued at $141bn in 2020 and a 17.4% predicted growth between 2021 – 2027.

With so much choice available to them, the temptation would be for Trusts to introduce large-scale solutions without considering the impact on the frontline or compatibility with existing workflows. Given the scale and scope of the market, I want to break it down to illustrate how smaller changes can have the biggest impact on clinical outcomes.

Make moves to digital consent

NHS services worked incredibly hard to deliver the same experience for patients through virtual consultations. Despite concerns about the effectiveness of ‘digital doctors’, many see the benefits of having appointments in the comfort of their homes. Patients no longer need to travel unnecessarily, and they can access specialists who would otherwise be outside of their local catchment.

The consent process and the principle of reaching a shared decision on treatment with a patient is one of the central foundations of healthcare. Yet despite its importance, documentation has been based on hand-written consent forms. In order to create a fully digital workflow, clinicians need to be able to capture patient consent remotely, rather than expecting patients to attend appointments simply to sign on the dotted line.

The cost of implementing a digital consent process might be cited as one of the reasons for delaying a deployment. But given that failures in the consent process can bring about poor patient outcomes and costly litigation, the question should be, can any NHS organisation afford not to implement digital consent?

Greater accuracy, consistency and improved outcomes are all-powerful drivers for the deployment of this technology. But when it comes to making the strongest possible case for investment, digitised consent delivers both in terms of positive patient experience and essential clinical regulation.

Bringing radiology and pathology closer together

It is clear that organisational change is required to improve patient outcomes, not only during the pandemic but also to ensure illnesses are diagnosed efficiently. The increased adoption of digital health means we now have the opportunity to create optimised, integrated networks in pathology and radiology that remove organisational restrictions and take away the limitations in resources. By doing so you can create an integrated view of diagnostic tests, images, reports, and results to help streamline processes and support Multi-Disciplinary Teams (MDT).

By integrating data and systems across diagnostic services, we can reduce the time and expense spent on processes and provide clinicians with faster access to complete result sets, therefore speeding up clinical decisions and the commencement of treatment. This also carries operational benefits such as easing the burden of administrative tasks including manual input or duplication to support the easy flow of information between team members

Making connections in patient health records

Clinicians need to have quick access to patient records to ensure swift diagnosis and create effective treatment plans. However, specialities can often exist in silos despite the fact they share comparable features.

To address the challenges of fragmented care and the increasing pressure to deliver elective services, hospitals and NHS Trusts need to have shared access to singular electronic patient records that can be accessed across multiple departments or sites. This gives clinicians a richer picture of the patient to ensure treatments are delivered in a safe and timely manner.

The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the crucial role that digital technology plays in healthcare. The ease of adoption and general receptiveness to change offers a real opportunity to make a big difference in a more digitally native NHS. Much in the same way that the flap of a butterfly wing might cause a tornado, we can make great leaps forward in digital acceleration with small but mighty changes.