The COVID-19 pandemic has without doubt placed enormous stress on the UK's National Health Service (NHS). However, it has also provided the opportunity to broaden the adoption of automation. Technology is playing a critical role in reducing staff time constraints and improving patient care. The NHS’s rapid adoption of technology is encouraging, and it will be critical in alleviating current pressures and planning for the future.
This unprecedented time has also seen further collaboration between private healthcare providers and the NHS. The current pandemic has opened up previously unimagined possibilities for new technologies and ways of working. Taking a stakeholder approach and communicating with all those who may be affected by change, whether positive or negative, can further encourage new developments and innovation.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the NHS was already facing challenges due to a growing and ageing population, as well as people living longer with multiple long-term conditions, such as, cancer. One particular challenge lies in staffing, for example, there are nearly 38,000 vacancies (one in ten posts) available for nurses alone.1 Additionally, inefficiencies caused by paper-based filing and prescribing processes, as well as the disproportionate amount of time spent on operational tasks compared to valuable, clinical tasks, are putting more pressure on staff capacity and resources.
With technology constantly evolving, and new technologies being introduced to the market, it can be overwhelming for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies to adopt the solutions that are best suited for their organization. While there is a lot of excitement and a lot of promise in talking about artificial intelligence (AI), data and digitalization in pharma, we must keep in mind that this is still an emerging landscape.
The pandemic has strengthened partnerships between the NHS and the private sector on a national, regional and local level. They have been vital in ensuring the clinical, financial, and staffing challenges associated with increasing hospital capabilities and capacity have been met. For example, in Plymouth, the oncology department at the University Hospitals Plymouth Trust has been transferred to the local Nuffield Health hospital which is providing facilities and staff to treat cancer patients and is helping to free up resources in the local Derriford NHS Hospital.2 Furthermore, one of the UK’s largest independent charitable hospitals, The London Clinic, also donated medical equipment, including ventilators, as well as over 20 members of staff to the London Nightingale Hospital if they were required.3
The pharmaceutical industry has also made important contributions to drug delivery. Collaboration between the NHS workforce, decision makers, and policymakers has been vital to the success of the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Partnerships between biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms have played an important role too in increasing distribution and uptake.
These examples provide a glimpse of the solid groundwork that the NHS has laid for collaboration and cooperation. This groundwork has established an environment and framework for the production and uptake of innovative and life-changing medicines and healthcare technologies.
Seamless, integrated automated solutions are vital in enabling healthcare professionals to focus on clinical tasks and improving patient care. However, the challenge of interoperability is that systems need to communicate with each other.
The challenge for the future is more widely spread collaboration across systems. Ones that are integrated and communicate with one another in different locations, allowing the seamless flow of crucial patient data. Providing a comprehensive view of different tasks such as drug management and data insights in real time.
It’s great to see that uptake began long before the current pandemic. For example, NHS England and NHS Digital have encouraged interoperability through the development of the Local Health and Care Record Exemplar programmed, launched in 2018. These partnerships have continued and flourished since the outbreak of COVID-19 — pharmaceutical companies are at the forefront of vaccine and drug development, while medical technology companies have been essential in addressing needs from increased infusion devices for hospitals, automated pharmacy dispensing software, to rapid testing and diagnostics.
Med-tech companies can play a critical role in expanding access to automation technologies. By creating streamlined workflows and increasing data processing. Automation can help relieve stresses and create safer environments for both patients and healthcare workers. AI can analyze patient and clinical behavior, generating insights that allow hospitals to be proactive in drug management, such as securing stock based on seasonal demand. More importantly, automation can help staff transition from solely organizational and administrative tasks to more clinical activities. This can be achieved by simply increasing productivity, accuracy, consistency, medication visibility, and reporting capabilities.
Continued collaboration between med-tech and the NHS will help better prepare the healthcare professionals to understand innovative technology trends and solutions, as well as to assess which are successful and potentially beneficial to their clinical practice. The modern ways of working would require staff upskilling, such as training in digital health and communication. To ensure momentum, an environment conducive to continuous innovation and improvement must be created and nurtured.
Automation will continue to play an important role in improving performance and patient safety in the future, as well as the NHS’s overall digital transformation. The NHS can future-proof healthcare systems by implementing automation more widely, relieving administrative burdens on staff and allowing them to focus on what they do best — treating patients. We're already seeing a rapid technological advancement to better prepare for potential health problems in the future. Eventually, this will result in improved patient care and cost savings, which can be used to fund further innovation.
The pandemic and recent NHS reforms illustrate the need for more integrated, innovative healthcare. The health tech industry and NHS must all work to fully recognize this and embrace the importance of teamwork and group strength. Rather than operating alone, each part of the NHS, public health, social care and policymakers should continue to search for ways to interact, coordinate, and collaborate in order to meet people's health and care needs and to realize digital health's full potential.
Wesam Badran is National Solutions Manager, UK & Ireland, BD.
1. The King’s Fund. NHS Workforce: Our position. Available at: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/positions/nhs-workforce. Last accessed April 2021
2. Hare, D. HSJ. The NHS’s relationship with private providers ‘has changed before our eyes’. Available at: https://www.hsj.co.uk/coronavirus/the-nhs-relationship-with-private-providers-has-changed-before-our-eyes/7027476.article. Last accessed April 2021.