All too often, 21st century people are left feeling frustrated by the seemingly 20th century technology that we use in the NHS.

  1. A lot of information still swirls around on paper; making it quite difficult to achieve connectivity between primary and secondary care. Getting everybody off paper and onto digital platforms that ‘talk to each other’ is a huge priority.
  2. Equally important, is the need for patient and clinician empowerment. There is an imbalance of responsibility, which sidelines patients’ potential for self-monitoring and can lead to NHS staff burn out.

Patients can support their care system if they have the information and digital tools they need to take more responsibility for their own health and care choices, while enabling health and care professionals to work more productively. 


Usability and usefulness of patient technology


The impact of any app or digital service centres on its usability and usefulness. To achieve this, the developer identifies a problem to solve, and designs the solution to meet the need of the user. User experience is key.

Digital platforms for the health service are often designed to meet NHS staff needs: does it allow me to collect information in the way I need to? Does it allow me to organise my staff to see more patients? Although these are important internally, they take little account of the people who are being moved through the system. Conversley, digital interventions in health allow opportunities to shape the user experience for the person on the receiving-end of care.

Solutions are springing up that allow people to take more ownership and control of their health, and feel empowered as a partner in their care. They are the expert on how it feels to live with their condition.



Online content and tools must be easy to access


Considering the popularity of the NHS website (over 11 million visitors a month), it is clear that people interact with the healthcare system via digital platforms. We must, therefore ensure that online clinical and service information is current and that online tools are accessible, helpful and able to support people to engage with their health away from bricks and mortar services.

"With 11 million visitors a month, information on the NHS website needs to be current and accessible."

It must be acknowledged that, rarely, are these tools a complete replacement for traditional bricks and mortar services, but rather, they act as an adjunct by allowing people to engage with their health in a different way.

The information that is really critical for people is the information that is about them. It seems like it should be such a simple thing to arrange for key information about a person to follow that person around the health service. Sadly, this is not the case and there are multiple system suppliers and organisational boundaries to overcome.


Using GP records for more personalised solutions


NHS Digital is actively working with partners across health and care to resolve this fundamental requirement for interoperability. Until this has been solved, we are working with localities, providers and developers on the leading edge of this work to learn how they have made things work and what more we could do.

Through the NHS.UK programme, we are upgrading NHS Choices to give patients a more personalised and relevant healthcare experience online. This includes improving digital access to GP records, which we are piloting in five locations. We are also building on the work of NHS England’s Patient Online project to enable more ‘transactions’, such as booking appointments and requesting prescriptions online.


Developing apps that are part of the healthcare package


The beauty of the digital space is that it is fast-paced and vibrant. There is a willingness to fail – it is OK to “fail fast” because through that failure you learn and iterate your product, pivot, or abandon. The idea of failure or getting it ‘wrong’ in any way is a big sticking point for large NHS organisations. Quite rightly so, as many thousands of people rely on the service in one way or another every day.

"Many clinical staff feel nervous and exposed when recommending apps."

So, in order to deliver things safely, the NHS – necessarily – moves slowly. However, there is the opportunity to create a framework of standards within which developers may create solutions. Our role is to articulate the standards, assure products against these and enable the market to engage safely in that work. This is the case in the apps space.

Apps certainly offer advantages to patients – they can allow them to record activities and can track the effects of interventions. By harnessing these tools and working in partnership with patients, the NHS can identify and assure those apps that deliver the greatest benefits to people – to understand what ‘good’ looks like. Doing this may help to safely reduce the nervousness many clinical staff feel in this space, where they feel exposed when recommending apps. In fact, it will help apps to become part of the entire package of care wrapped around people with long-term conditions. The opportunities are immense and the possibilities really are endless.


Even simple technology helps


We hear a lot about artificial intelligence (AI), but harnessing the technology may not need to be quite so cutting-edge. For example, simply presenting people with easy-to-digest information indicating which of their local pharmacies are open or how long the waiting times are at their closest A&E, can really have a positive impact as it will influence the choices people make on where they access health or care.

"Technology that could show which pharmacies are open or how long the wait at A&E is."

This can be done very simply by exposing application programme interfaces (APIs). These APIs are the “locks” on the doors into clinical systems. By exposing APIs in a controlled fashion, developers are able to understand how to make keys that fit these locks, which will ultimately be of great benefit to patients. 

The health technology space is an exciting place to be. It is an enabler – to help people make good choices about how they look after themselves, and to help the services that they engage with continue to be sustainable in the future.