COVID-19 has been a major catalyst for digital innovation across the NHS. In December 2019, just 15% of the 23 million primary care appointments scheduled during the month were conducted by phone or online. By May 2020, many GP practices across the county were delivering 90% or more of appointments virtually. However, along with this tremendous advancement, COVID-19 also highlighted the complexities of delivering digital healthcare within a highly fragmented and complex market.

The NHS is the biggest employer in the UK, with over 1.7 million employees working across over 10,000 organisations. The scale, combined with the complexity of its services, creates a challenging environment when it comes to driving efficiencies and implementing large scale digital initiatives across the organisation. As a result, technical innovations are often implemented in siloes, preventing the NHS from reaping the wider benefits of digitisation and delivering holistic outcome-driven digital strategies.

While there is no quick fix to these problems, digital innovation has the potential to improve outcomes for both patients and healthcare workers by alleviating the pressure on healthcare staff, prioritising safety for frontline workers by minimising physical contact with those who are infectious, and enhancing the patient experience.

Here are three ways technology can help, including one quick fix, one mid-term solution and a long-term objective.

The quick fix: Prioritise employee wellbeing

The pandemic has had a significant impact on frontline workers’ wellbeing, with 80% reporting that that their mental health has suffered because of the pandemic. While virtual health has enabled the NHS staff to deliver mental health services to the wider public, thousands of healthcare workers have had to battle with anxiety, exhaustion, and depression on their own throughout this tumultuous year.

To address this challenge, the NHS has already introduced its People Plan initiative which aims to create new ways of working and running care services that are not only more efficient, but also designed to create a better working environment. However, the success of such initiatives would depend on understanding how healthcare workers feel and the key pressures that they need to deal with in the workplace on a day-to-day basis. Smart data measurement and analytics tools such as Qualtrics can enable healthcare leaders to measure employees’ wellbeing and needs by running regular ‘pulse checks’ on staff wellbeing and enabling them to make more informed decisions about addressing mental health issues post-pandemic.

The mid-term solution: Ensure more efficient use of existing resources

The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), which is tasked with improving the services available to frontline healthcare workers, has set out an ambitious plan to transform workforce management across the organisation. One way for driving such large-scale improvements is through increased digitisation and people-focused processes.

For instance, NHSBSA has rolled out a digital platform for electronic management of staff records to provide healthcare workers with more efficient ways to manage and share HR information. Since it was introduced in 2008 this platform has been used mainly for access to payroll information. While this has been very beneficial for the sector over the years, more functionalities could be added to this system to deliver huge workforce efficiencies for hospitals and create greater resources for frontline workers. For example, tapping into functionalities such as HR systems management, employee self-service capabilities, and learning tools can deliver significant process improvement and efficiencies across the NHS.

The technology already exists. Third-party applications for HR resource planning, for instance, can be easily implemented to extend existing electronic payroll capabilities and improve the efficiency of workforce management across the organisation. This approach, combined with a holistic cloud adoption strategy, can help the NHS drive significant operational efficiencies.

And this is just the beginning. Cloud technology can speed up the digitisation of the NHS and help drive deeper automation, resulting in further efficiencies and service improvements. For instance, automation can be used to standardise best practices across the sector to reduce variations in clinical care or to enable better use of resources and supplies. Automation can also eliminate manual, repetitive tasks for healthcare workers, reducing their workload during challenging times such as in pandemics.

A long-term objective: Leverage new technology to transform healthcare and support frontline workers

AI and advanced analytics were already successfully deployed to support frontline workers during the first wave of the pandemic last year. For SAP this involved working with its technology partner, Skybuffer, to build a solution that provided real-time patient monitoring, distant consultation, and remote check-ups. This helped improve patient satisfaction for 96% of patients and reduce appointment no-shows, allowing 72% more patients to show up for appointments and resulting in 34% fewer hospital readmissions. SAP also worked with the technology company Wipro Limited to develop a solution that enables organisations to monitor for proper wearing of PPE, something that ultimately helped to reduce healthcare workers’ exposure to COVID-19, mitigating its spread.

Remote patient monitoring, both within hospitals and for home-based patients, can further reduce the risk for healthcare workers by minimising direct contact with infectious patients. What’s more, better data sharing and improved analytics, can enable the NHS to drive significant operational efficiencies, freeing time for healthcare workers to focus on value-added patient care.

COVID-19 triggered a digital revolution across the NHS and accelerated the transition to digital healthcare. The pandemic forced the industry to embark on a rapid digital transformation journey and the NHS has proved more resilient and adaptive than we could have hoped. To continue this progress going forward, it must adopt a more holistic approach to digital innovation, rooted in widespread cloud adoption and deeper digitisation. This can help create a new set of data-driven healthcare services that deliver better outcomes for both patients and frontline workers.

Satpal Biant's is SAP’s Head of Public Sector UK