Digital solutions have proven invaluable in helping the NHS cope with the demands of COVID-19. But will support for new ways of working survive beyond the pandemic?
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Technology has been absolutely vital in helping the NHS manage the overwhelming pressure placed on its services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from video conferencing and remote appointments with GPs through to artificial intelligence systems designed to understand the demand for hospital beds, has been used to help keep healthcare services operating throughout the pandemic.
In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, NHS Digital, which is responsible for a number of key digital services for health and social care in the UK, quickly found itself under strain as people began searching for information on COVID-19. In the first week of March alone, the organisation fielded an additional 120,000 calls to its NHS 111 hotline, forcing it to quickly increase capacity and set up an online system where people could check COVID-19 symptoms and get advice.
Within a week, more than one million people had used the service; at its peak, NHS 111 online experienced 95 times its highest ever use, with over 818,000 accessing the service in a single day.
"No CIO prepares for that," says Sarah Wilkinson, CEO of NHS Digital.
The experience was testing for NHS Digital, which had to rapidly scale up services at a pace that, while necessary, Wilkinson admits felt "too fast for comfort" at times. "We've really lived by the seat of our pants on some of the things we've done in the last few months," she says.
But Wilkinson says that how NHS Digital has responded to COVID-19 has shown that agility, even from one of the largest organisations on the planet, is still possible. "The interesting thing for me has been two big things: one, we've been able to show both the power of digital and data in serving the health and care system, and what we can do with the stuff we have at our fingertips," she says.
Wilkinson believes the crisis has also shown just what NHS Digital is capable of as an organisation: its ability to deliver secure products and services at great speed. "That, I think, has been really confidence-building for us," she adds.
Deploying new tools so quickly has come with its challenges, including having to very quickly fix up the NHS's technical plumbing. This includes introducing massively improved connectivity to different parts of the healthcare system, creating tens of thousands of new NHSmail users in social care, bandwidth upgrades and new virtual smartcard authentication systems.
"The infrastructure demand has been incredibly high, in ways that I really don't think we could have predicted at the outset of this," says Wilkinson.
The call for data has also been "extraordinary", she adds. NHS Digital and NHSX have been working on a number of data initiatives throughout the pandemic aimed at capturing and making sense of COVID-19 data from across the health system, striking up partnerships with industry partners including AWS, Google and Microsoft in the process.
NHS Digital is now seeing an unprecedented demand from NHS organisations that want to access and connect this data, Wilkinson says: "We throw up a dashboard, and by the end of the day we have hundreds of people wanting access to it. We're trying to make as much of that as open as we can."
Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most significant technology deployments of the pandemic has been Microsoft Teams, which was rolled out to every NHS organisation across England and Scotland in the days following bans on businesses and non-essential travel in the UK. The software proved instrumental in allowing NHS teams to coordinate their responses to the crisis and continue their all-important work in the face of a global health crisis.
"The Teams deployment had a huge impact on the productivity of the service," says Wilkinson. "That scale of deployment in that time with that resilience was phenomenal."
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