Mobile Technology: Is the NHS Closing the Skills Gap?

Opinion Article by Steve Carvell, head of healthcare at CommonTime.
Technology skills are in higher demand than ever. Look across any vertical and developers who can create mission critical apps and push organisations into the mobile era, are highly sought. NHS trusts tend to only have small teams of developers - but is this enough to cope with the modern and abundant technology needs of the NHS?

For many NHS trusts, IT developers and IM&T teams are focussed on supporting or delivering traditional clinical systems such as electronic patient records and patient administration systems. These large scale IT implementations, targeted at improving digital maturity and the sharing of information at the point of care, demand and consume significant IT resource.

Pioneering trusts are however now finding that achieving an in-house mobile development resource can tackle and respond to emerging frontline clinical priorities, in a rapid and agile manner.

Put simply, the ability to create apps within a hospital is ending a reliance on off-the-shelf solutions and can allow trusts to deliver information to their clinicians and patients, in the way that clinical priorities demand.

A need to focus on mobile skills in the NHS digital plan?
Improving digital skills and digital offerings is at the forefront of many NHS organisation’s objectives, and has certainly had buy-in from the top for some time, with progress on the paperless agenda continually being sought.

The UK's former digital champion Martha Lane-Fox outlined in her recommendations to the National Information Board around building the basic digital skills of the NHS workforce. This, she said, was needed to ensure that everyone has the digital skills needed to support people's health needs.

Digital is clearly fundamental to transforming and sustaining healthcare in the UK. NHS vanguards for example, are pioneering care transformation, and at their heart sits the digital sharing of information for better care across populations.

This goes hand-in-hand with developing digital maturity on the frontline.

But throughout all of this, NHS trusts need to be more agile in their approach to IT to meet today's challenges - both national and local. Building the skills of an NHS workforce that is not only digitally equipped, but that is specifically able to create and share information in a mobile way, could be an answer to this agility.

Mobile first - responding to the real clinical demands
Ensuring mobile in-house skills offers the NHS a way to respond to real clinical demands quickly. Gone are the days when it is acceptable for healthcare professionals to queue for access to a PC terminal to find information on their patient. Whether it is a nurse caring for a patient on end of life care, or a doctor diagnosing an illness, information needs to be at their fingertips, at the point of care, wherever that might be.

Having the ability to create the mobile tools needed to enable this in house can place the NHS in a position of power, and in the position where it can develop tools to fit the needs of its specific staff and patients, no longer constrained to buy generic off the shelf apps.

Large clinical ICT systems have been the priority of NHS organisations. But now there is a very real positive energy in every NHS trust that has seen the benefits of embracing mobile technology. Mobile is not the afterthought it used to be.

Some trusts are now taking a ‘mobile first’ approach, and with good reason. Smartphones are on the rise in health and are increasingly used by clinicians. In fact, The King’s Fund named the smartphone first in its top eight technologies that will change health and care.

Many have shown the enthusiasm for what mobile can achieve for their staff and their patients - but equally as many haven't had the skills needed at the onset of this approach. To fulfil the potential of mobile technology, the average NHS trust needs more resource than the current average of one or two developers per organisation.

Utilising existing clinical skills
There is a wealth of skill and resource that could now be maximised. Healthcare apps require clinical input to be successful. Some clinicians are using their own devices within the hospital to help deliver care.

This passion and enthusiasm to use technology for improving care should not be stifled. Clinical staff can drive app development, without impacting on the demands of a busy hospital ICT team.

Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust is one great example of this - where a consultant psychiatrist has worked with the Leicestershire Health Informatics Service to create a first of its kind app to break stigma around electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), a potentially life-saving treatment for patients suffering from conditions including severe depression.

The app, which was the first to be created by the trust, was developed without a dedicated mobile development team resource, by drawing on a platform that allowed staff to be quickly trained to use drag and drop facilities. It signalled the start of a new programme of mobile activity in Leicestershire and could have implications organisations throughout the NHS.

Building a skills base
Put simply, trusts need to look at ways at building digital skills, when they do not have capacity or additional resource.

The Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is another that has done this, using mobile development to overcome integration challenges and creating an electronic care record in mobile form.

The Hillingdon Care Record app has been a major success and is transforming how healthcare professionals access information. Developers too have continued to gain new mobile skills and can now confidently make future developments in-house through the platform.

This has placed the trust in a strong position moving forward to swiftly respond to changing clinical priorities.

Thinking differently
Steeped in history the NHS could be called a technology laggard in many respects. It does however have a wealth of new talent, armed with ideas, from all disciplines including IT. The Five Year Forward View is teaching us to think differently about how we deliver care. There are digital tools available that can help better utilise, or build a digital skills base, but ultimately it’s about being flexible and able to respond to the demands of those on the frontline.

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