Pat Finlayson, senior product manager at Polycom explains how telemedicine should be at the centre of NHS digital transformation.
Earlier this year the NHS celebrated its 70th anniversary, providing a prime opportunity to honour one of the UK’s most important institutions. However, against this backdrop of celebration, 2018 also saw the health service’s challenges come to the fore. In April, for example, it was revealed that NHS England had suffered its worst A&E times on record, while funding and resourcing issues continue to dominate headlines. Indeed, hospital times this winter are already expected to be longer than last year’s.
This landscape has fuelled discussions about how digital transformation can help the NHS evolve, keep pace with changing patient demands, and mitigate the impact of skills shortages. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, for example, has spearheaded a number of initiatives, and recently unveiled his vision to build “the most advanced health and care system in the world.” To support this pledge, he announced £487 million for technology projects, with a view to reducing staff workloads and improving patient care.
One technology that is set to form an integral part of this transformation strategy is telemedicine. An audio-visual technology also referred to as ‘telehealth or e-health,’ telemedicine enables healthcare to be delivered remotely, and has the potential to be life-changing for everyone involved – from medical practitioners to administrative staff and to the patients themselves.
Expounding the benefits
Audio-visual technology has evolved to a point where patients are now able to attend a consultation from the comfort of their own home, during which a healthcare professional can carry out an initial diagnosis, prescribe and monitor the use of medicines, and advise on next steps.
By cutting down on the time spent on unnecessary in-person visits and the accompanying costs, enabling patients to access care remotely in this way will significantly reduce pressure on a hospital’s already stretched resources and finances.
The efficiency benefits of freeing up a healthcare professional’s time have already been proven for a host of NHS trusts and private healthcare providers. Organisations such as Operation Smile, for example, use video conferencing solutions to conduct post-operative care and therapy, allowing them to massively scale up the number of patients that can be treated each day. For Evelina London Children’s Hospital, the use of telemedicine saved around 1,300 hours per year in clinical time, and improved the productivity of its cardiology staff by 90 percent.
Patients too will enjoy significant benefits from being able to see a healthcare professional when they need to, rather than having to wait for an appointment some days or even weeks away. The NHS has successfully used video collaboration technology to save the lives of stroke victims who might otherwise have had to wait hours for urgent care, for example. What’s more, the technology will save on patients’ travel time and, by not having to sit in a waiting room or ward filled with other sick people, significantly reduce the risk of infection.
Another of the key advantages of telemedicine lies in its ability to significantly reduce the number of readmissions. Readmission rates have risen by a fifth over the past seven years, presenting challenges for doctors at a time when resources are already stretched to the brink. However, by enabling healthcare professionals to remotely monitor a patient’s ongoing condition and adherence to their prescribed drug regimen, the use of telemedicine can help ensure a better recovery rate.
Telemedicine also connects entire healthcare teams; a meeting room fitted with state-of-the-art video collaboration technology, for example, means that cancer consultants in Guy’s and St Thomas’ are able to review patients’ cases in chorus with their colleagues in other locations.
Much attention has also been given to the varying levels of care provided in different regions. In a recent report, the Care Quality Commission noted that “some people can easily access good care, while others cannot access the services they need.” Hancock himself has vowed to end the “postcode lottery” experienced by many UK citizens. By providing patients with the access they need, however, regardless of their location, telemedicine is going some way to democratising healthcare.
Investment in the right technology can be transformative for healthcare providers, solving resourcing challenges, driving efficiencies, and improving access to care. We are moving towards a future in which patients can book an appointment through an app, and then receive on-demand treatment, medical advice and diagnosis through a video portal, at home at work.
As the NHS looks to its next 70 years, it must consider the transformation it must undergo in order to achieve Hancock’s objectives. In helping to deliver huge efficiencies across the NHS, reduce waiting times for treatment and outpatient care, and enabling frontline NHS staff to attend patients that require urgent medical attention, we can expect to see telemedicine solutions play an increasingly important role.