The NHS must crack its digital transformation complexity problem

Managing a portfolio of hundreds of vendors, the UK's healthcare provider is facing an interoperability conundrum.
18 May 2020

The interoperability of data and IT systems can drive NHS’s digitization. Source: Shutterstock

  • Digital transformation can be tricky for the healthcare center due to the mass streams of data
  • The interoperability of data and IT systems can facilitate digital transformation projects

Healthcare systems around the world are in the spotlight today. The demands of a global pandemic is laying bare how well prepared they are, how overburdened they are, and how much support they have from governments and public alike.

For decades, technology has been a central tenet of the advanced healthcare we have access to today. And we have seen, most recently, how it has enabled new processes like telehealth, allowing medical workers to reach patients without contact, or how AI can leveraged in the search for a coronavirus vaccine.

Like most other organizations today operating in a digitzed world, those in the healthcare must also navigate wider digital transformation initiatives to continue to enhance the efficiency of their operations and user experience with the solutions available.

Last week, the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) published a report that “describes the state of digital services in the English NHS [National Health Service] and examines its readiness to deliver digital transformation.”

The published report, at a time of a global health crisis proves significant, and highlights the roadmap to digital transformation in healthcare is one with significant hurdles and challenges, but that must be navigated for the benefit of the nation’s health. Ahead of the pandemic, the healthcare system on average treated more than 1 million patients every 36 hours across the UK. 

“Better data will underpin clinical decision making, vital research and government planning to help the NHS manage anticipated demand as well as threats like those we are experiencing now,” the report reads. 

The updated cost for digital transformation strategy is budgeted to be £8.1 billion (US$9.8 billion), with the majority to be spent between the timeframes of 2019 to 2020, and 2023 to 2024.

Last year, Jonathan Cordwell, Principle Health and Social Care Analyst at GlobalData, said the highly-competitive ecosystem of vendors offering tech solutions for healthcare adds complexity to innovation

“Some NHS organizations are faced with the immense challenge of managing an IT supplier portfolio of hundreds of vendors, each offering individual solutions and niche capabilities.”

Last year, NHSX was founded as a unit dedicated to the digital transformation of healthcare and social care in the UK. Cordwell said one of their core aims is to encourage buyers to try and simplify these portfolios or at least adopt those with open standards in an effort to ease the pressure of achieving greater interoperability.

Interestingly, this point was one of the key findings in this year’s report. One of the main goals the NHS aimed to achieve is to establish interoperability of data and IT systems, which will play a significant role in the sector’s digital transformation.

Even so, the interoperability of IT systems and the seamless sharing of data was found to be difficult to achieve. The study indicated that only three out of 10 sets of standards are considered ‘ready’ by the NHS.

The reason comes down to the lack of a plan and set standards used consistently. Furthermore, the report stated achieving interoperability of data and IT systems will become more challenging over time if a realistic schedule is not set for completion of the work.

Another concern cited is NHSX and NHS Digital’s intent to use a variety of contractual frameworks to ensure tech supplies conform to standards that facilitate the interoperability between IT systems.

This, in turn, will add complexity to the compatibility of data and IT systems as more system-to-system integrations are needed. In essence, some raise concerns for fiction caused by the aim to achieve interoperability and the increased number of technology suppliers to the NHS.

The growing number of different technology suppliers means more challenges for the interoperability of data and IT systems.

Therefore, the report revealed that NHSX plans to ask local organizations to develop a ‘data layer’ that will support data access and exchange across different systems. The goal is to achieve a uniform standard that enables the seamless movement of data within a secured healthcare network.  

Like in business, where digital transformation projects aim to improve security and operational efficiency with the end goal of creating a better experience for the customer, the healthcare sector aims for digital transformation is to ultimately improve the service it can provide to patients.

To put that need into perspective, NHSX CEO Matthew Gould earlier this year said an MFA overhaul costing US$52 million would “allow staff across the NHS to spend more time with their patients and less time fighting their computers.”