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How technology is transforming the NHS (1st of 3-part blog series)

By October 16, 2018Health, Opinion Piece

In his report on hospital efficiency, Lord Carter says that efficient hospital management is essential for high-quality care provision. Matthew Swindell, NHS England’s National Director for Operations and Information, highlighted in his 2018 conference, that the only way to alleviate the increasing pressure on the NHS is by building several new hospitals a year to cope with demand, or by using technology to revolutionise the service.

The most pressing technology need not just in the NHS but in the private health market, too, is how to share patient data. Sharing information quickly between hospitals, with consultants, or from a GP surgery to a hospital, doesn’t just save time, it could save lives.

But because there’s no unified approach to doing this, healthcare providers are seeing a rise in ‘Shadow IT’ – technology that is unsanctioned and insecure.

Research shows that around 500,000 NHS employees use various instant messenger apps as part of their work. 43% of NHS staff questioned in one survey even said that they depended on these apps to do their jobs. The most common of these are messaging tools like WhatsApp or sharing tools like Dropbox to share data.

The issue is that these tools were designed initially for consumers, not for sharing confidential patient information. But with no suitable alternative, they seem to be the best option. They’re certainly faster than email, and more secure than fax (yes, some health clinics and pharmacies still use fax).

The fact that doctors and other health professionals are using these tools shows that there’s a real need for fast, secured content sharing. But they’re not fit for purpose. We must remember that healthcare providers deal with some of our most sensitive personal information.

And while medical staff may use apps like Snapchat in their personal lives, they shouldn’t be using it to send each other sensitive patient data, as a panel of experts found was happening in 2017. But until there’s something better, you can’t just ban the use of these tools.

Some NHS Trusts have authorised the use of apps like WhatsApp to send data quickly. You can see why. But it creates real problems.

First, there’s no way to trace where that data will end up, or who has access to it, or who has made changes to it. It’s often transferred between private mobile phones, as not everyone is issued with a mobile phone or tablet. If a diagnosis is queried by a patient (or their family) and all communications have happened on a private messaging app, there’s no audit trail. That’s a big risk for the provider.

Second, there’s a massive risk of human error. We’ve heard some terrifying stories. If you’re a nurse, and you’ve been sent patient data via WhatsApp, that might be fine if you’re just dealing with one patient. But if you’re dealing with tens of patients, and you’re switching between WhatsApp messages from different doctors, about different patients, it’s easy to look at the wrong data. How do you differentiate between patients? We know how easy it is in our personal lives to post to the wrong group on a messaging app. That’s fine when you’re replying to a party invitation. It’s not fine when you’re diagnosing a patient.

Healthcare providers need a unified, secure way for employees to communicate and share confidential data instantly. But it needs to be done in a way that means the provider can keep control, that minimises the risk of human error, and that keeps an audit trail of information and decisions.

Stay tuned for our next blog post on how technologies such as Pushfor are helping to transform health.