Apart from funding, Brexit and prospects of the new national artificial intelligence (AI) lab, fellow policymakers, healthcare professionals, as well as business executives also emphasized on the significance of infrastructure, data and workforce training in digitization of healthcare, during the NHS (National Health Service) Health and Care Expo 2019 (NHS Expo) took place between 4 and 5 September in Manchester, UK. 

Getting the infrastructure fixed 

Ayesha Rahim, Chief Clinical Information Officer (CCIO) and Deputy Medical Director at Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, said at one of the panel discussions hosted by NHSX, the new NHS digital unit launched officially this July, that getting the basics right is more important than being caught up in the excitement of new technologies. She explained we seldom hear staff or patients stressing on “the need for AI or virtual reality in our service” but complaints tend to revolve around the fundamental such as system log-in or access to WiFi. 

As a Perinatal Psychiatrist, Rahim often had to type out birth plans while her patients are by her side. She felt that the extended time required to log into the system is preventing her from delivering the necessary care. “Every minute that I spend trying to get into the systems is a minute that I cannot spend listening to what the patients wants… This is not acceptable, we need to get that right” Rahim said. “If we really want to mainstream clinicians being involved in digital health – not everyone is going to be a CCIO or a CNIO or a CIO – we have a vast array of staff that also need to be involved, because the staff on the ground working know those services best and they will know what works”. 

Not innovation but adoption 

Matthew Gould, Chief Executive Officer of NHSX said in the opening address of the panel discussion that “the problem is not actually one of innovation but it’s one of adoption. We need to create the right platform for innovation and adoption to happen”. He explained “a system in which innovation flows and can be safely done and scaled” is not driven from above and “the role of organizations like NHSX has to be to create a platform on which innovation can flourish”.

At the same time, Gould warned true digitization of healthcare can only be achieved if there is a “genuine partnership” between organizations, clinicians and patients. “It’ll need us to bring clinicians with us; they need to believe that this is for the best and will help them do their job. We need to bring all the non-clinical staff in the system with us… Crucially, we need to make sure patients are with us, that what we design works for them and isn’t just handed to them and are told ‘that’s the answer’. User-centered design is right at the heart of what NHSX is about”. 

Celebrate the early adopters 

In a separate panel session which focused on digital capabilities, personalized care, and disease prevention and prediction, Hugh McCaughey, National Director of Improvement at NHS England and NHS Improvement urged for more incentives and recognitions given to early adopters for their effort to trial new technologies. 

“There are exciting opportunities presented by innovators… Has anyone seen an award being handed out to early adopters? Early adopters need to be celebrated as much as the innovators,” McCaughey said. At the moment, it takes an average of 16 to 17 years for NHS to scale up an innovation and McCaughey believed this ought to change. NHS staff need to “grasp the opportunities” that innovation could bring and think of the consequences of losing them. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.