In January, the NHS reported that over 14,000 beds were occupied by patients considered medically fit to leave. This resourcing pinch is not new, but with hospitals at near-record capacity, the UK’s national health service is under pressure to address backlogs ahead of winter pressures.
While the government’s commitment to invest £250m in expanding NHS capacity with 900 new beds has helped, the shortage remains a symptom of a broader set of issues. Britain has an ageing population, demand is sky-high, and the sector is operating with a staff shortfall of 154,000 fulltime employees.
NHS and local authority care services are helping to meet these challenges head-on by implementing closer data integration. The idea is that busy professionals spend less time chasing up information across siloed systems, and, more importantly, patients and service users have better experiences and outcomes when clinical and social care teams collaborate effectively.
“The challenge we have in the UK is that patients come into a hospital setting and receive treatment, but there is limited convergence between what happens in the NHS and subsequently in a social care setting once that patient comes out of hospital,” explains Nick Wilson, CEO of health and social care software specialist System C.
Typically, convergence focuses on sharing data between acute trusts, when the reality is data needs to flow across different care settings and into social care, Wilson notes. In other words, much of the focus to date has been in the wrong place.
The power of continuity
The lack of convergence across health and social care often means that NHS staff are keying in data that has already been provided to another department or organisation. Wilson notes that errors, inconsistencies and delays can easily build up in this environment. “If the right data doesn’t flow from one part of the integrated care system (ICS) to another, it might delay patient treatment. Equally, by the time the patient is seen, their condition could require a more invasive or expensive procedure,” he says. “Of course, it also adds administrative cost and burden to an already stretched workforce.”
Over time, the inefficiencies caused by poor data integration can prevent NHS staff from making the best decisions. “It might be that if I see this patient today, I can offer a simple, lowcost intervention like physio or a drug regime. If I can’t, by the time I see the data, the patient’s condition may have deteriorated, and now they require surgery,” Wilson adds. “Joined-up data can improve outcomes, reduce costs at face value and help to avoid costly and potentially challenging interventions further down the line.”
The case for preventative care is clear. But without visibility, how can providers across branches spot the warning signs? In London, the majority of pregnant people present at more than one hospital during their pregnancy. Yet, historically, care providers haven’t had an easy way to connect the dots, Wilson notes.
Barnsley Hospital’s maternity service has made strides in this area. In 2021, it rolled out secure communication and real-time data sharing between NHS and care staff using System C’s CareFlow software. Since then, medics and social workers have been able to quickly access full audit trails for their patients, from police reports and birth plans to images of c-section incisions and mental health reports. This transparency carries positive implications for patient safety as well as the course of treatment.
The potential of joined-up data is also evident across social care and education. Knowsley Council is utilising System C’s solutions to enable teams to access information about a child across social care, education and early years settings. The council can also access information on adults who are linked to children in their care. “By connecting data, care providers, whether that be in healthcare or social care, are better equipped to make timely decisions. This ultimately improves the outcome for the person receiving care,” says Wilson.
Making handovers more helpful
Research by the British Medical Association found that a quarter of doctors are at ‘high risk of burnout’, up eight percentage points on 2021.
The regulator has cautioned that doctors are reporting higher levels of workplace stress than at any point in the survey’s history. Excessive paperwork and outdated processes can’t be helping, Wilson points out.
He says: “The one thing that social care providers and medical staff tell us is that they want to spend more time with people. They don’t want to be rekeying information or not feeling confident that they have the right information to make the best decision. Connected, effective systems can help unlock more time to care.”
Where better information sharing can boost patient outcomes, it can also boost morale among hospital staff. Wilson shares an anecdote about a children’s hospital that had been granted better access to data from other teams. Triage times, he explains, were reduced from around 10 to two minutes - time that could make a significant difference in an emergency scenario. Undoubtedly, giving NHS staff the best shot at helping people is a powerful step towards alleviating the stress of the job.
The sort of data convergence Wilson is referring to is still in its early stages. Nevertheless, Britain is at the forefront of data sharing and integrated services in this space and the scope for new developments is huge. “In the UK, we have a fairly unique set-up with the NHS, and in some ways, that means it’s uniquely complex. But we have some brilliant innovations happening in the British tech industry. We’re building systems with particular care settings in mind,” he says.
In the high-stakes world of healthcare, the question of how to innovate while keeping the lights on is a critical one. Any sector sustained by taxpayer contributions will inevitably face scrutiny over the value for money and timely results of its transformation projects.
“Where the NHS has been enormously successful has been engaging staff in transformation and securing buy-in from very different stakeholder groups,” says Wilson, suggesting that public and private sector organisations look to the changes happening in the NHS. “If we consider that the average bank spends around 8% of revenue on technology, and the NHS spends just 1 or 2%, what has been achieved with that relatively limited investment in percentage terms is remarkable.”
For more information, visit systemc.com