The NHS is facing an unprecedented level of demand from a growing, ageing population with increasing chronic health problems, while having to operate on an ever-tightening budget and dwindling resources.
The need to be able to do more with less forms the key driver behind the digital transformation currently being undertaken by the health service.
In terms of clinical care procedures, this digital transformation is exemplary, delivering world class, innovative technology. Take, for example, the use of virtual reality by surgeons at Alder Hey to explore the hearts of young patients before carrying out critical operations; or consider Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust's initiative of issuing patients with wearable devices from which clinical, biometric and lifestyle data can be uploaded to their patient records.
When it comes to structuring or running a business, however, the health service is arguably in a very early cycle of digital transformation. Despite being at the forefront of digital innovation when it comes to clinical care, it appears that little value is seen in innovating the back office which supports everything that happens on the front line. Take, for example, the disastrous results experienced by Ryanair in its pilot scheduling which was based on Excel spreadsheets, and which resulted in a substantial financial loss for the business and in many peoples' holidays being ruined. How, then, with such cutting edge clinical care, is the NHS able to justify managing patient journeys on an Excel spreadsheet?
Much of the manual work taking place in the back offices of the NHS is simply outdated in the modern world. There's an urgent need for the NHS to automate more of its processes, practices and technology so that it can deliver greater sustainability throughout the healthcare ecosystem. In short, the time has come for the NHS to modernise its day-to-day functions through digital transformation.
Barriers to change
Trying to bring about change in the NHS can be like trying to alter the direction of a super tanker in the middle of the ocean. As well as a sense of fear and misunderstanding around what's involved, there is often a reticence to change; a sense that, as things have always been done one way, so should they continue to be.
In addition to this, a culture of investing in short term, tactical fixes, rather than thinking strategically and investing for the future, serves as a further barrier to change. NHS trusts are autonomous, and tend to perceive themselves as unique, believing that no single technology or solution could meet their particular needs. As a result, they will tend to do what they can with the resources they have to hand internally. To echo the health service's own maxim, it should strive for prevention rather than cure, addressing the root cause of any issue, as opposed to opting for a short-term fix and risking the recurrence of that issue.
Rather than taking the traditional approach to addressing an issue, by increasing headcount, the NHS should instead invest in its workforce, training and supporting them, and providing them with the technologies they need to increase their efficiency. Such technologies already exist and are being used by other businesses to improve efficiency and their customer (or patient) experience.
Indeed, digital automation is a far more logical alternative to simply throwing people and even more spreadsheets at a problem - not to mention considerably more financially sustainable. To enable this, however, the NHS should focus on its core business of providing high quality care for its patients and embrace working with third party suppliers in the private sector who specialise in providing robust digital technology solutions.
Transformation will never happen quickly enough; you'll always want it to be quicker. With every provider believing themselves and their needs to be unique, the journey to change being adopted consistently across the country will be a long and painful one; but it's necessary to improve efficiencies and sustainability, for the benefit of clinical staff, executives, administrators and, of course, the care of its patients.
Holistic strategy for change
In the NHS, as in many other businesses, digital transformation is underpinned by the intelligent use of data. Data is one of the healthcare industry's most precious resources, and one of its most valuable assets. Automating the management of data is a fundamental part to driving through transformational change in the NHS. Standardising data will allow intelligent questions to be asked during the entire patient journey, throughout every aspect of the healthcare ecosystem. Joining up and standardising data flows across all elements of healthcare and social services will deliver a holistic strategy for change, underpinning the establishment of the best vehicle of care for each individual citizen.
With digital transformation already delivering world class clinical care, transforming the back office in this way will provide UK citizens with confidence in the knowledge that they're receiving the best quality care, whatever their condition.
Graham Bennett is healthcare director at Insource
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