Matthew Oakley is the Director of WPI Economics and a former Treasury civil servant.
The Conservative Party won the general election on a platform committed to public service reform. Alongside 20,000 new police officers and a £33.9 billion boost to the NHS, the party’s manifesto also promised the construction of 40 new hospitals and 50,000 extra nurses.
But improving public services, including the NHS, is about more than just buildings and numbers. It is about people. The team manning A&E departments 24 hours a day. The hospital porters transferring patients from wards to operating theatres. The clinicians going above and beyond to nurse us back to health.
It is the task of any government to ensure that those who commit so much time, energy, care and empathy looking after us, are allowed to get on and do their jobs. Matt Hancock recognises this; in a speech given in 2018 he stated that of his top three priorities – tech, prevention, workforce – “workforce is the most important.”
This commitment to those working in the NHS has become even more important this year, when the UK went into lockdown to suppress the spread of Covid-19. Doctors and nurses in the NHS, alongside care workers, receptionists, cleaners, and paramedics, have been saving lives day in and day out on the frontline. It has been an extraordinary effort, which will have taken an extreme physical and emotional toll on many.
In a report I have authored, published today and commissioned by the technology company VMware, we identify the scale of the mental health challenge among the NHS workforce. Using data from NHS Trusts and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), we estimate that more than 10 million working days were lost to poor mental health among NHS staff across the UK in 2019 at a cost of £3 billion. That’s the equivalent of every single worker in the health service taking on average seven sick days off work. Unfortunately, due to the impact of Covid-19, we can expect the 2020 figures to be even worse.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of tackling mental health among NHS workers. A wide-ranging strategy is needed, which includes improved management practices and raised awareness within hospitals of what best mental health practice looks like. But there is one area which will be absolutely fundamental to any improvement: technology.
A recent survey of NHS professionals showed that six in ten thought NHS IT was not fit for purpose, and in a BMA member survey four in ten respondents stated that their stress levels were significantly affected by inefficient IT and data sharing systems.
Some of the IT issues which confront NHS staff are totally unacceptable and reform is long overdue: it takes around 10 minutes to log on to many NHS systems, for example, with multiple logins necessary throughout the day. Some NHS Trusts have as many as 110 different IT systems in place, without any connectivity between them. This means constantly moving files of patient data from system to system or, as is more likely, using apps on personal devices such as Whatsapp to share patient details. These digital silos are slowing NHS staff down, causing unnecessary stress, and creating huge inefficiencies and security issues right at the heart of the health service.
Whilst these issues currently place real pressure on the time and workload of the NHS workforce, there are clear routes through which they can be tackled by improved technology. One such example is establishing a simple principle that clinicians should have the right information on the patient in front of them, on any device that they are using and at any time, with the security you would expect to surround personal medical records. It is a simple principle, but one that would fundamentally change the experience of many clinicians today: saving time, easing workloads, reducing stress and improving patient care.
Creating a strong digital foundation in every hospital in the country won’t just relieve the pressure on staff and enable them to spend more time looking after patients. Replacing outdated IT systems will kickstart the roll out of game changing technologies in the health service. This could mean artificial intelligence predicting demand for hospital beds, cutting edge robotics technology revolutionising keyhole surgery, and pioneering machine learning approaches identifying rare diseases.
The Health Secretary understands the pressing need for this reform. The government and NHS England have committed to providing a core level of digitisation in all hospitals by 2024. Many trailblazing hospitals have stepped up to the challenge and are leading from the front. Other hospitals, however, need help in the form of technological expertise and funding. We should provide them with the tools to allow them to update their IT backbone and enable their staff to carry out their jobs more easily.
The UK is a leader in healthcare and technology. If we can combine our expertise in both, then it will go a long way in improving the mental and indeed physical health of our dedicated NHS workers, which in turn will help all of us.