The healthcare sector in the UK is under a tremendous amount of pressure. According to one source, in the last five months, nearly half a million appointments or procedures have been rescheduled, many of them due to the junior doctor’s strike. On top of this, healthcare leaders are facing mounting challenges when it comes to improving patient care, increasing efficiency, and reducing costs across the board. Answering these challenges will require an overhaul of the sector’s digital capabilities – something that has not come easy in recent years.
Healthcare tends to lag behind many other industries when it comes to digital transformation for a number of reasons. The complex structure of health systems, often involving multiple stakeholders such as local and national governments, poses a real challenge. Additionally, the quality of the underlying IT infrastructure, the presence of various technology suppliers, and a wide range of end users with different needs further complicate the process.
In an independent report published by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, the gap between manual and digital processes in the UK health system was highlighted as a key challenge to overcome. The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for digital change, but the digitalisation of certain services – such as the ability to book appointments online – while other services remain neglected, has resulted in a disjointed user experience where manual, legacy services are still needed. The report argues that the National Health Service (NHS) needs an “enterprise architecture” foundation if it is to excel as a digital entity and deliver on its goals.
The benefits of digital health and mobile health (mhealth) are indeed difficult to overstate and would make a material difference to the sector’s ability to cope with the mounting pressure it is currently facing.
Digital health encompasses the use of digital technologies, such as mobile apps, wearables, remote monitoring devices, and telemedicine, to enhance healthcare delivery and improve patient outcomes with new monitoring capabilities and healthcare delivery mechanisms. They also help reduce costs by taking pressure off employees through the automation of certain services and the ability for patients to “self-serve” where appropriate. For instance, booking appointments through a live booking portal, renewing subscriptions via an app, or engaging in online appointments unless a face-to-face meeting is required.
mHealth specifically refers to the use of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, to deliver healthcare services and access health-related information and has the potential to reach a wide range of individuals, including those in remote areas, and enables personalised and convenient healthcare solutions. This patient-centric approach to healthcare, with automated appointment bookings and other self-service channels, will alleviate some of the pressure the sector is under – but only If the sector can overcome the hurdles on the road to digitalisation.
The three main hurdles currently facing the UK health sector when it comes to digitalisation are data security, regulatory compliance, and process automation. In this article, we will explore each of these challenges in detail and discuss potential strategies to overcome them.
Challenge 1: Data Security
The implementation of digital technologies in healthcare has significantly increased the attack surface for malicious actors. General practitioners (GPs) are now connected to the NHS, pharmacies, and hospitals, while the use of personalised healthcare apps and telehealth services relies heavily on app developers to ensure their security. Protecting patient data has become a critical concern for healthcare organisations.
To address this challenge, robust data security measures must be implemented. Encryption tools can be employed to secure sensitive data both in transit and at rest. Access controls and user authentication mechanisms should be implemented to restrict unauthorised access to patient information. Network segmentation can be utilised to isolate critical systems and prevent lateral movement by attackers. Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments can help identify and mitigate potential weaknesses in the IT infrastructure. Additionally, educating healthcare staff about best practices in data security and instilling a culture of security awareness will be essential to safeguarding patient data.
Challenge 2: Regulatory Compliance
The healthcare sector is subject to a plethora of regulations and standards to ensure patient safety, privacy, and the quality of healthcare services. Keeping up with evolving regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), can be a daunting task for healthcare providers. Achieving and maintaining regulatory compliance is crucial to gaining the trust and confidence of patients, regulators, and the general public.
One strategy to address this challenge is to adopt a ‘composable’ approach to technology using containerasion platforms such as Kubernetes. Containerization is a technology that allows applications to be packaged along with their dependencies into isolated and lightweight units called containers. Containers provide a consistent and portable environment for applications, allowing them to be lifted and shifted and ‘orchestrated’ as a collective whole. Containerised applications can be upgraded and worked on in isolation, without affecting the whole digital infrastructure, making updating services faster and far less risky.
Kubernetes – a platform used to manage and orchestrate containers, enables organisations to achieve greater agility, scalability, and efficiency in their software development and deployment processes, making it easier to build and run applications in complex and dynamic computing environments.
By leveraging modular and interoperable solutions, healthcare organisations can design and develop new applications dedicated to the management of regulatory compliance. These applications can automate compliance processes, track and document adherence to regulations, and provide real-time reporting capabilities to demonstrate compliance. Additionally, implementing comprehensive compliance management systems can centralise and streamline compliance efforts, making it easier for healthcare organisations to stay up to date with the latest regulatory requirements.
Challenge 3: Process Automation
The healthcare sector relies on effective communication and collaboration among various stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, administrators, patients, and carers. However, the lack of interoperable IT infrastructures hinders seamless data exchange and integration, leading to inefficiencies and suboptimal patient care.
Process automation has the potential to transform healthcare operations by enabling interoperability and streamlining workflows. By developing IT systems that can communicate and share data seamlessly, healthcare professionals can access real-time patient information, facilitate care coordination, and improve decision-making. Automation can help eliminate manual and repetitive tasks, allowing healthcare staff to focus more on patient care and reducing the risk of errors.
Data-driven monitoring plays a crucial role in process automation. By analysing large volumes of healthcare data, organisations can identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and areas for improvement. Insights derived from data analytics can inform evidence-based decision-making, optimise resource allocation and enhance hospital performance management. Additionally, process automation can drive innovation by identifying patterns and trends that contribute to the development of new products, treatments, and care protocols.
Understanding and leveraging the strategic importance of digital transformation in the healthcare sector to overtake the aforesaid challenges will be a must for care providers when it’s time to deliver improved patient outcomes and build a stronger, more sustainable future.
Unlocking the power of digital health will be central to the success of healthcare organisations moving forward. By overcoming these challenges and embracing digital transformation, the UK’s healthcare system can deliver improved patient outcomes and build a stronger, more sustainable future.
Financially sustainable investments in digital health and mobile health technologies, coupled with a collaborative effort from healthcare leaders, policymakers, and technology providers, will be essential in reshaping the UK’s healthcare landscape.