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Breaking the backlog with digital to address pandemic treatment delays

Dr Simon Bourne, co-founder and CEO of my mhealth, explains why digital transformation is critical to solve the challenges of modern healthcare.

Services are under immense pressure. The capacity to deliver the same quality of care to everyone in the UK is challenging. Reluctance to attend and the poor availability of hospital appointments for patients with long-term conditions has caused a sharp decline in treatment referrals. The NHS Confederation has warned that we could be looking at a six million patient backlog. We’re against the clock and the time to act has to be now.

By embracing digital technology, the NHS can look to tackle a continued thorn in its side – its long wait times, while providing best-in-class care for its patients. Digital can free up the resources needed to ensure patients can swiftly receive a prompt diagnosis earlier and improve patient outcomes.

We must find a new approach to alleviate staff shortages to ensure that vital adult care services are delivered and prioritised, rebuild patient confidence and support our overworked staff. The past decade has proved there is a lot at stake if services do not embark on a digital transformation journey. The time for our healthcare system is now.

Our healthcare system is vulnerable, and patients need to have the right advice when they need it most. Digital offers service resilience. We can give patients access to expert level care based on national guidelines and understanding the self-help measures. Digital health has the potential to deliver highly personalised interventions and are not just another algorithm to follow. Many of these interventions are NHS approved and can reduce the burden on the NHS because the patient concern is answered without leaving their home, and they feel empowered to self-manage.

Committing to digital innovation empowers patients to manage their care whilst providing clinical teams with real-time data to provide personalised support when required. Proficiency is paramount. Putting patients at the heart of any progression can enable greater access to NHS approved digital resources and interventions. By empowering the patient and putting patient choice first, the healthcare system can virtually support and educate the individual. The impact of this can be enormous, as it helps reduce admissions, missed in-person appointments and spending averages.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how technology and digital progress has enabled the industry to manage remote monitoring at scale. Delivering evidence-based interventions using NHS-approved software also alleviates pressure on clinical teams and better resource management for all levels of care. An example of this is the use of intelligently delivered medical device demonstration videos can reduce inhaler device errors by 80%. Targeted, personalised patient education prevents patients from being overwhelmed with irrelevant information by assisting patients with an effective personalised self-management intervention.

Backlogs in reviews, surgery and treatment will only repeat if we do not shift our approach. We have a tired and understaffed workforce that is currently running on empty. Resources are stretched. The impact evident in dwindling appointments. Adopting a virtual approach to consulting patients and overhauling NHS operation systems will support both HCPs and the community. Preventative measures will be a priority like never before.

Over the past year, patients who are deemed vulnerable or wish to minimise unnecessary contact throughout the pandemic can receive care via telephone. On average, GPs only have 7 minutes to see patients. Yet are expected to offer full patient support in this short window. Moving towards a more digital approach, including virtual consultations and automating annual reviews, helps deliver up to 75% efficiency savings in this process which in many cases have sparsely delivered during the pandemic. Dispersed healthcare provision delivers better outcomes, as patients are engaged in the spaces they feel most comfortable in and given the desired personalised support for their specific needs.

Digital can connect clinicians and patients to give each a set of self-management tools, rehabilitation, education courses, reporting mechanisms and even a checklist to manage their conditions. We need to harness and leverage these capabilities to mitigate the mounting pressure from waiting times and treatment referrals.

The past year has made us take each day as it comes. Now healthcare systems need to look at the long-term strategy for recovery. Driving resilience and accessibility into care pathways with technology’s support will transform the backlog of referrals and waiting times. Not only will this impact waiting times but also patient confidence exacerbated by the pandemic. Enabling patients to receive the treatment they need and support to manage their care remotely will be fundamental moving forward.

Technology is powering innovation in care delivery. We must capitalise on the capabilities presented by widespread technology implementation to mitigate the referral backlog. Bridging the gap between necessity and capacity by providing HCPs and patients with the tools and information they need will be a game-changer. Personalised medicine requires personalised interventions. This is a call for collaboration on all fronts. GP practices, the network of healthcare providers and the government, it’s time to break the backlog.

About the author

Dr Simon Bourne is a former military doctor and NHS medical consultant, specialising in respiratory medicine and a leading COPD consultant at University Hospital Southampton.