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Interview with Professor Sultan Mahmud

Director of Healthcare, BT’s Enterprise unit

Authored by Ailsa Colquhoun

Digital transformation has long had the potential to improve health services and outcomes for patients using the NHS and it’s time to make it a reality across the UK.

As the NHS battles with waiting lists, winter pressures and workforce challenges arising from the pandemic, there is a growing view that digital innovation is crucial to support a service that is severely stretched.

As a trusted partner of the NHS, telecoms and technology provider, BT has its sights on a programme of digital health transformation – one that realises the full potential of data – that could alleviate current pressures and offer better anticipatory care; addressing patient needs before they become more severe. The company is working with the NHS to develop fully integrated healthcare experiences with digital touchpoints wherever clinically appropriate, to ease operational pressures and help offer people smarter ways to access care.

Delivering an efficient service

Throughout the pandemic the company has been by the NHS’ side, moving at rapid pace to provide connectivity at 180 COVID vaccination centres and the Nightingale hospitals. The company was also central to the LifeLines programme – virtually connecting families isolated from loved ones in intensive care due to changes in visiting policy throughout COVID-19.

Levelling up is needed within the NHS to make sure that a base level of infrastructure, digitisation and clinical translation is there across the country.

For the Director of Healthcare at BT, Professor Sultan Mahmud, it feels almost like a duty for the company to play its part in transforming the digital capability of the NHS. He says: “The pandemic is an inflection point for the NHS because it has made us all realise how quickly we can move if we really want to. It is estimated that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in healthcare by between four and six years. The challenge now is to help the NHS avoid going back on this progress and make it stick in a way that’s sustainable and clinically right.” 

Improving patient experience

A key vision for future NHS partnerships is to develop the kind of architecture that enables systems to integrate and interoperate in a more flexible way, improving the experience for patients who could be seen at home or monitored remotely using health tech.

For clinicians, better access to a combination of live clinical data and smart platforms could enable them to act on a wider range of health information in a more timely – even, pre-emptive way – to reduce exacerbations. “Certainly, there are elements of this technology already in use across the UK but it’s not systemised,” says Sultan. “Levelling up is needed within the NHS to make sure that a base level of infrastructure, digitisation and clinical translation is there across the country.”

Winning hearts and minds

Buy-in from the NHS frontline – from doctors, nurses, managers and patients – is key to this vision, which is where the company holds unique strength, believes Sultan. An important step in this process was the creation of BT’s clinical advisory board. “We recognise the challenge of clinical translation of technology into real-world settings and we’re now organised in a way that ensures we understand before being understood,” he explains. Comprising clinicians with decades of experience in front line care, clinical IT implementation and NHS executive backgrounds, the board is tasked to ensure that all new connected healthcare solutions are fully trialled, tested and embedded with direct feedback from NHS partners. There are also new partnerships with the King’s Fund, Health Tech Alliance, and digital hyperscalers to foster collaboration and insight within the company.

Sultan explains: “We’ve been with the NHS since 1948, through thick and thin, and are very proud of the fact that we’re here to serve our country. Across our company, each one of us recognises that our friends, family and loved ones are relying on a future ready NHS. We have the power to convene with world-class digital partners and the experience of large-scale transformation across other industries. Now, we are committed to bringing that expertise to bear for the NHS. For us, the NHS is not just a customer, it’s a partnership.”

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