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Harnessing the opportunities to drive digital transformation in healthcare

  • By Jason Ward, MD, Dell Technologies Ireland & Northern Ireland

    Technology has proven to be a critical element of Northern Ireland’s healthcare sector in recent months. As the COVID-19 virus threat spread, healthcare professionals faced the unprecedented challenge of meeting the needs of those infected while also, where possible, maintaining distancing guidelines in their interactions.  There was also a need to continue to meet the healthcare needs of those with non-COVID related health challenges – often people requiring urgent or emergency care as well as those with ongoing long-term chronic illnesses.

    What we have seen, and applauded, over the past four months is the bravery and commitment of those working across the NHS – and indeed – in the world. These frontline workers never shied away from doing what was needed and we thank them for that. What has become apparent is that in many cases, access to the latest technology has helped them meet the challenge they had to face.

    Despite the low number of GPs having used the technology previously, telemedicine quickly became a core part of the response in primary care with doctors replacing face-to-face appointments with virtual clinics. Electronic prescriptions became an invaluable tool in helping to enforce social distancing while providing a convenient service for patients.

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    We’ve also witnessed how advanced computing continues to help researchers to gain better insights as part of the ongoing quest to better understand the virus, including the identification of prevention methods, treatment options and helping to determine where resources are needed most. Supercomputers from Dell Technologies have been put to work across the world to mitigate the spread of the virus and to help solve some of the real-world challenges it creates.

    Digital transformation turning point

    But does the increasing use of technology within our hospitals and research facilities mark a turning point for digital transformation in healthcare or was it simply an emergency response to the crisis?

    I firmly believe that we should take the learnings from this unprecedented time, apply them and build on them. Many of the practices introduced because of necessity are actually ones that could work on an ongoing basis. Virtual clinics have proved to be efficient and convenient for patient and doctor for example – why stop now?  The roll out of technology at all levels of the healthcare system has shown us all how digital health services can deliver care more effectively and empower patients with better outcomes.

    Northern Ireland now has a unique opportunity to use ad hoc changes as a catalyst for long-term transformation. New Decade New Approach commits to transforming the health service in order to deliver better patient outcomes and sustainable services into the future.

    The implementation of the Northern Ireland Electronic Care Record (NIECR) system is one important step on this journey. Virtual clinics, leveraging data to inform decision making, is another critical element in achieving better outcomes – something that everyone is striving for.

    However, ongoing, rapid change won’t be achievable all at once nor will it occur without addressing some of the persistent obstacles that slowed the pace of reform over the past decade.

    Overcoming persistent obstacles

    While some progress has been made in moving to digital health records, the adoption of electronic medical records stands at just 3% in Europe. Accelerating the shift from paper to the Cloud would enable GPs and consultants at primary and acute care level in Northern Ireland to instantly access patient history and make a more informed diagnosis. 

    In many instances, outdated infrastructure is working against the purpose they were implemented for and are hindering healthcare professionals in quickly sharing diagnostic imaging and lab results.  Within one hospital alone, there can be several different systems for patient data creating interoperability issues and cracks within the system.

    Although initial investments in e-health across Northern Ireland are steps in the right direction, the rate of adoption of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning has not been as fast as it should be. We need to accelerate the deployment of technology across the system to help make a real difference for patients and staff.

    At Dell Technologies, we’ve sought to support healthcare organisations to overcome this obstacle. By creating a Virtual Reality (VR) solution for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, we’ve helped to remove the trauma and fear for many children undergoing MRIs and to significantly improve the efficiency of the process for staff.

    However, the greatest obstacle to enduring transformation is neither the right technology nor strategy. It is culture and mindset. Digital transformation requires a change in culture that encourages new ways of thinking and working at all levels of the healthcare system and focuses on the outcomes that can be achieved for patients through technology.

    Flexible working can mean that care becomes more person-focused, both for patients and our medical professionals. With the help of remote technology, the roll-out of a virtual 24-hour triage service can ensure patients have the always-on care while also being directed into the right stream of care.

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    No time to delay 

    There is no time to delay. Northern Ireland’s population is expected to increase to two million people within the next 24 years while the number of people aged 65 and over will jump from 308,200 to 481,400 - an increase of 56.2%.

    If we are to ensure that healthcare professionals are fully equipped to meet these growing demands, technology will need to play a greater role. We have to change how things are done rather than doing more of the same things.

    Digital transformation, although not without its challenges, can be as simple as implementing technology that is already widely used such as health monitoring apps on phones or drawing insights from existing patient data from across the system. Just see how the adoption of the COVID tracker app has been adopted by the public in Northern Ireland. More than 250,000 people downloaded the app in the first two weeks alone. 

    Sometimes it takes a crisis to change mindsets. Let’s not waste this opportunity and use COVID-19 as a catalyst for widespread transformation. In doing so, Northern Ireland’s healthcare system can better sustain the wellbeing of a growing population while continually improving the outcomes for patients.

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