Most healthcare professionals understand that technology plays a key role in the delivery of health services.
There have been some notable successes: for example, mobile technology allows paramedics to send patient ECGs directly to an emergency department, facilitating speedy diagnosis and treatment. And integrated digital radiography systems have virtually eliminated the need to send radiographs by mail, resulting in fewer lost radiographs and cancelled appointments.
Yet sometimes technology's potential to transform healthcare provision is not fully realised.
Technology needs to be seen as a fundamental lever of health policy development, rather than as a purely operational asset. Otherwise, its true potential fails to be realised. Take, for example, telemedicine. It has existed for several decades, but an inadequate connection between health policy and the technology's true potential means it is not used in any significant way outside of rural areas.
Any technology initiative - whether it is electronic patient records or remote patient care - needs to be supported by a health policy commitment. A real opportunity exists to increase the momentum behind current initiatives and to raise awareness of how technology can solve common health management problems and make services more patient-centred.
There are significant opportunities for the NHS to engage with technology providers to drive innovations that benefit patients. These include:
- increasing engagement between NHS policy makers and practitioners and technologists;
- forming such partnerships earlier in the policy making process;
- sharing case studies of effective healthcare technology innovations across trusts;
- getting high-quality feedback on innovations from all participants in the healthcare system.
Embracing technology earlier in the process of developing health policy could improve service provision by making care more patient-centred, saving time, increasing cost-effectiveness, and improving patient satisfaction.
One example of this approach is the King's Fund's patients at risk of re-hospitalisation tool. It allows primary care trusts to predict the risk of emergency readmission to hospital based on factors such as prior admissions, diagnoses and socio-demographic information.
This technology helps managers plan services more effectively by ensuring a more predictable case load. This improves patient care and allows expenditure to be planned for and potentially minimised.
Another system, HealthVault, currently in use in the US, gives patients greater control over their personal health records by allowing information to be stored securely on the web.
The system allows patients to share information with family members, doctors and other trusted people. Privacy settings and access controls are strictly controlled by the patient. A range of health and wellness monitoring devices, such as sport watches, blood glucose monitors, peak flow meters, and blood pressure monitors can be connected to the site, making active management of existing health conditions possible.
Health information technology can provide viable and effective solutions to improve the delivery of healthcare and can transform health service management. However, this potential has only just begun to be explored. There are many areas in which healthcare policy makers and technologists could work together more effectively to create a more innovative healthcare environment.
Policy makers and technologists should be encouraged to work more closely together at a much earlier stage to ensure that technology-enabled innovation plays a central role in the future quality improvement of the healthcare system.
Making technology a lever of healthcare policy making will finally enable it to deliver its true potential in the transformation of healthcare.
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To read Jerry Fishenden's technology blog, visit ntouk.com