Jemma Kwint: How can digital technology help reduce staff pressures and improve care?
We all know and love our NHS, but we also all know that the staff who work in it are under growing pressure. Recently the NHS long-term workforce plan was released. This outlined the large number of vacancies in the NHS – currently 112,000 – and the plan for ensuring there are enough staff in the future.
One thing the plan set out was the need to take full advantage of digital and technological innovations. Whether it’s remote consultations, artificial intelligence (AI), or therapy delivered by virtual reality, I think there are exciting digital technologies that could help to reduce staff pressures and also improve patient care.
At the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), we fund research across the breadth of health and social care. I have recently written a Collection that brings together some of the NIHR research on this topic. In this blog I’ve picked out a few examples of digital technologies, which I think could make a difference, to share with you.
Ruling out heart attacks
Research has shown that computer decision aids can quickly and accurately rule out heart attacks in A&E. The vast majority of people who attend A&E with chest pain have not had a heart attack.
In a study that compared four computer decision aids, researchers found that two were able to rule out a heart attack in almost half of all patients tested, removing the need for multiple blood tests. This could save staff time and NHS resources, and either identify the need to act urgently, or allow staff to provide reassurance.
Supporting staff and service users
Digital technology can also be used to provide support for staff and for patients. For staff, research has shown that real-time online support could help in settings like community palliative care services. One intervention was designed to enable senior staff to provide remote support and to delegate tasks to more junior colleagues. This digital support allowed more junior staff to be included in services, reduced A&E admissions and improved the quality of care.
For patients, technology can provide support in other ways, which could also free up staff time and enable non-specialists to support care. For example, research has shown that online behaviour therapy could be an effective treatment for children with tics. It requires less experienced therapists, and less therapist time than traditional face-to-face therapy which means it could greatly increase the availability of an effective treatment.
In a similar way, using virtual reality to deliver therapy could enable non-specialists to support patient care and allow more patients to be supported. Researchers found that virtual reality therapy can help people with psychosis who have intense fears about being away from home. The virtual therapy allowed people to practise everyday situations such as leaving home, being in a cafe, shop, doctor's surgery, pub, and getting on a bus.
So, could using digital technology in the NHS reduce staff pressures and improve care? It won’t solve all the challenges faced by our health service, but new innovations could reduce the burden on staff while also maintaining patient outcomes. With an ageing population and growing demand on our NHS, we can’t afford to shy away from new technologies.
If you’d like to read more examples of research that could make a difference, you can take a look at our full Collection on digital technology in the NHS here and watch out for our upcoming Collection on AI.