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Is healthcare bleeding competence online?

Digital healthcare in the UK presently evokes a lot of mixed emotions. The Long Term Plan deadline for online consultations feels like yet another external pressure to most healthcare professionals, thus demotivating them to actively participate, shape, and finetune digital transformation. Despite their attachment to the NHS, patients all over England are at their limit with waiting times – this stagnant waiting game is becoming more and more conspicuous when compared with every other service they receive. Yet, behind all this, there is a way to embark on digital transformation in a way that can bring these issues to an optimal solution.

The Long Term Plan deadline for online consultations in April 2021 has not been particularly received by open arms. The NHS has been severely understaffed, with 1 in 11 positions unfilled according to 2019 stats [1]. As a result, existing healthcare professionals are under severe strain, with the NHS staff survey revealing that 78% experience unrealistic time pressure and 40% report feeling poorly due to work-related stress. Consequently, it is no wonder that asking these healthcare professionals to embark on a digital transformation journey feels like an added pressure that they have little motivation for and commitment to. Nevertheless, the result of this disengagement is hindering the very process that would do both healthcare professionals and patients a great deal of service.

‘Put a plaster on it’

In order to hit that deadline and given their current condition, healthcare professionals resort to a band-aid solution: Outsourcing online consultations. While that may tick the task on the internal to-do list, it ends up doing more harm than good. Since the healthcare provider patients know and trust is so lightly involved and barely visible in the digital services, they do not seem to have the expected uptake. However, this doesn’t imply that online consultations are an undesirable service – the issue there is more complex, and one that other industries have unlocked and invested in a long time ago: The brand.

The NHS in particular is the no1 brand in the UK. Not only is it the most recognisable, but it has achieved what other commercial brands only dream of: it is the most trusted brand in the UK. The latest NHS identity research unveiled that the majority of the respondents correlated the NHS logo with free quality healthcare, feelings of confidence, reassurance, and pride, and hard-working, competent staff. At the same time, the same research the respondent reported that a third-party co-branding evoked a feeling of worry, a loosening of the high-quality standard they expect from the NHS, and the implication of privatisation.

While identifying this correlation does require friction with the concept of a brand, once it’s been discovered, this correlation is deafening – particularly for patients in need of healthcare, where a steep level of trust is involved. It is no surprise then that the committed patients of the NHS don’t engage sufficiently with an external provider, where it is immediately visible from the point of entry that they may not receive the competence and quality of care they know so well. So, at the end of this line, all that is left is a checked task and loosely associated service with very little uptake. With healthcare’s efforts congregating towards substantially putting the patient’s needs at the very centre, this evidently ends up as yet another purely administrative effort, with more losses than gains.

What if it keeps bleeding?

But what happens to those who do engage with the outsourced online services? Some younger patients with minor, simpler ailments may find solace in the 10-minute appointment. However, even if this is a case the healthy general public can relate to, this group remains a minority of the cases healthcare treats. For most healthcare appointment, treatment is not a one-visit case. Continuity of care in these cases is absolutely and irrevocably essential and digital healthcare is a tool that works in parallel with physical care.

Outsourced online services have no access to the patient’s medical record and are unable to assess complex cases, chronic illnesses or cases of comorbidity – as simple as asthma and a cold. In many other cases, a physical examination as simple as checking vital signs is necessary – a process that is impossible or even less convenient than a regular GP visit. But most importantly, the relationship between patients and their own healthcare professionals transcends socialising: Healthcare professionals working in continuity with a patient know her/his condition and regular metrics, have strong reference points to assess the progress of one or several conditions, and can take immediate action on any escalation by prescribing the right visit or tests. For the NHS, the board for true patient-centric care is set; maybe some pieces are missing, but outsourcing online consultations belongs in a different game – one that is, literally and figuratively, much more costly in the long term.

Dare to treat the wound

The main takeaways from the above is that online consultations, but most importantly, easier access to the healthcare flow are both necessary and appealing; but much like they’ve come to know from other aspects in their lives, patients want to choose on their own terms – from their own healthcare provider, that they know and trust. Given the amount of faith patients have in the NHS, turning to outsourced online competence for their ailments is a last resort, albeit one that leaves those most in need uncovered.

The issue of healthcare access is indeed a problem that is occurring now, but it’s also a problem that has to be solved now and for the future. This is a historical tipping point for healthcare providers, where they are called to choose which side of history they will be on. Patients will demand healthcare on their own terms – and on their mobile phones – in the same way they interact with other brands to consume their goods, manage their money, get their news.

While healthcare will not be given the same pass for too long, it’s not all doom and gloom. Every crisis is an opportunity and this particular crisis is a great opportunity to invest in the future of healthcare. As with every investment, the beginning of digital transformation is challenging: it takes time, resources, guidance, and fundamental change in the work processes. But it doesn’t take long until it becomes business as usual and both healthcare and patients start attesting to its value. But this particular investment is essential, because if you don’t jump on this train, you may miss it; But if you do it, and do it right, you can jump right in the locomotive and drive it – after all, you know the destination better than anyone.

You know the destination, but do you need help navigating? Check out our guide on how to scale up online consultations in a large healthcare organisation.

Guide 10 tips on how to succeed with large-scale implementation of digital healthcare Points and advice to succeed with broad implementation of digital healthcare. Download

Sofia Pyrgioti

Sofia Pyrgioti

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