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James Bird was a Parliamentary Candidate at the 2015 & 2017 General Election and a former councillor for Birmingham City Council. He is currently a Director at Remarkable Group.

Half a decade ago a little known West Coast tech firm, dreamed up by Garret Camp one New Year’s Eve, arrived in London and transformed the transport landscape for millions of people.

Uber has recently found out the hard way that big government agencies are not always friendly or far-sighted. Transport for London is only the latest quango to try to halt the onward march of technology. Another public service much closer to us all, the NHS, must not make the same techophobic mistake.

True, the NHS caught a nasty cold with the failure of its ‘Connecting for Health’ IT programme. Some in the system have still not recovered. But with Britons ageing, medicine advancing, A&E demands rising, and costs spiralling, the bosses at NHS England and in the local trusts need to swallow the pill.

That is because today 30p out of every £1 spent on all our services goes on health. And we will continue to pump more and more money into the system to meet demand until the role of digital technology in providing savings and greater efficiency is allowed to play out in full force. The NHS must embrace technology to control its costs and enhance patients’ experience.

It has a long way to travel. The Health Service is still looking to go paperless, still seeking to integrate patient records (the PACS system is still incomplete), and is vulnerable to cyber-attacks. It has a new (cynics would say “another”) Digital Strategy, with £4.2 billion committed over the next five years.

To outside techies the opportunities to digitally enhance the NHS are legion, but it’s highly regulated, highly layered, slow to move, and culturally resistant to external influence.

But there are some quick wins and the Uber model, much  in the news at the moment, presents one such possibility.

Hospital trusts have long laboured under the staggering costs of agency staff. Though the Government has made initial progress on this, saving £700m in 2016-17 by calling on trusts to “redouble” their efforts in applying price caps and only sourcing agency staff from approved suppliers, there is still an astonishing £250 million a month spent on agency staff in the sector – money that should be spent on patient care and staff wages.

Currently most trusts operate their own staff ‘banks’ but often come up empty-handed. Working in silos, they have no way of reaching out to available clinicians in neighbouring areas, so they resort to using agencies and paying stiff commissions. This hits the tax payer and hurts patients.

Here is where Uber concept comes in and emerging, disruptive technology offers hope: a recent app pilot opens the door for trusts and potential staff to post and access job opportunities in real time.

As an example, a nurse working for Trust A can go log onto the app to find if there are any shifts available in a nearby hospital with Trust B. Both trusts can directly advertise to a wider pool of potential staff across the region to fill their shift and skill needs.

This makes it much easier for nurses and doctors to access opportunities beyond their usual workplace, much quicker for trusts to fill posts, and importantly will cut out the agency and its costs, which can then be re-invested in patient care. The pilot showed dramatic results in cost savings.

And it does not stop there: an app being rolled out for patients to access their patient data shows that if a third of a practice’s patients were to access their GP record at least twice a year, ten per cent of appointments would be saved as people no longer book to discuss simple things when they can check online.

Historically, healthcare technology investment in the NHS has been inconsistent and disjointed. Many projects fall by the wayside when immediate pressures come to bear – just look at the scrapping of the Connecting for Health and the failure of the National Programme for IT (“NP-FIT”).

The emergence of a strategic partnership between NHS Digital and TECH UK, and the creation of an NHS App library, offers hope for cost effective innovation. But only around 40 apps sit in the library and already there’s the risk that tough regulation could increase costs and stifle the ideas of smaller outfits.

We must not be held back by our historic failure to grasp technology, and the NHS in particular must get with the programme. Trusts must embrace disruptive technologies as a significant part of the answer to the NHS’s efficiency dilemma so it can enhance patients’ experience, control costs, and offer much greater flexibility, and potential reward, to a new generation of NHS clinical staff.

It’s time for the NHS to join the Uber world. Those who want to dismiss it and regulate hurt patients, staff and the bill payer. Time to say “taxi!” for the staff agencies and bureaucrats.

18 comments for: James Bird: The NHS must embrace new technology to deliver for patients

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