Blog 05 July 2022

Integrations in healthcare – why ICSs will stand or fall by their data capabilities

by Clare Rafferty


As NHS waiting lists continue to spiral out of control, leaving people to face elapsed treatment times and lower levels of support – never has the efficiency of today’s healthcare system been more in the spotlight. Despite plans to tackle it, this colossal backlog will not begin to subside for at least another two years. In addition an ageing population, patients with multiple morbidities and the mental health of the nation are all putting health and social care services under more pressure than ever before. Added to this, funding constraints dictate the requirement to do more with less.

Amidst these challenges, and in recognition of the fact that the current model of health and social care needs a radical rethink, the concept of Integrated Care Systems (ICS) was born — designed to form new partnerships between organisations including hospitals, local authorities and wider community services. ICSs are being positioned as the key to better and more joined-up healthcare services driving improvements in the population’s health. However, despite their promise, it would be naïve to think that the move to an ICS model alone will be the silver bullet for the challenges facing today’s over-stretched health and social care system. Integrations in healthcare will be key.

A large-scale change programme

The move to ICSs represents a large-scale change programme, which calls for an overhaul in the way leaders and organisations work together to deliver more joined up and seamless healthcare across often disparate bodies or organisations. To unleash the full potential of ICSs and make sustainable changes, healthcare organisations will need to radically transform current ways of working. And this calls for a culture-first approach – closely followed by a digital one.

For the move to ICSs to be a success long-term, healthcare organisations must prioritise integration to enable better collaboration. Such a migration requires deep unification between all organisations involved in the population’s health and wellbeing to really make a difference to patient and citizen outcomes. Currently, that level of collaboration is falling short, both from a cultural and tech perspective. Many local authorities and healthcare organisations still rely heavily on outdated legacy systems running often disparate systems from multiple vendors. This leads to a lack of interoperability and data silos. The systems simply do not talk to each other in the way that they should!

Creating a collaborative culture through tech integration

Multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) must be able to communicate and share data effectively to put the patient at the heart of everything they do. To do this, data must be used to create a culture of trust and learning between all members of staff and patients. They say that ‘knowledge is power’ and this is true when it comes to change. Openly sharing data and information will ease the current uncertainty that staff members and patients often feel, creating a culture that gives everyone permission to work on system transformation.

Fortunately, there are technologies available that have the power to break down barriers between MDTs that deliver health and social care to patients. With operations currently running in silos, GPs/primary care, acute care and adult social care organisations all use different systems, which is where challenges such as duplication of effort, missed information and delays can occur. Bringing these various systems and departments together should therefore be a priority. In an ideal world, there would be one platform where all healthcare professionals, departments and organisations can communicate to deliver a single care plan. That plan can then stay with the citizen, who should be involved in and have access to it, with all the key professionals involved in the patient’s care able to add and update the record.

By using Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies such as low-code, applications can be built to enable multi-disciplinary teams to work together and integrate with existing IT estates, providing new front ends and portals. This allows organisations to capture, and unify data from existing systems, breaking down silos and providing more accurate information leading to improved clinical insights.  

Embracing intelligent automation to reduce admin time

Another key part of unlocking better healthcare is reducing the amount of time that staff, particularly clinicians, spend on administrative duties, as opposed to spending time on the frontline with patients. To overcome this and enable healthcare staff to focus on patients – rather than administrative duties – intelligent automation should be a key consideration across an ICS.

Through intelligent automation for health, the workforce would see a reduction in routine tasks and admin that would enable staff to spend the time they gain back on patient care. For example, acute trusts can make a savings time of a total of 99.8% in screening diabetes patients. The power of automation is clear in this context; however, many organisations are at a loss on how to implement it, and how this can be done quickly without interrupting existing systems. By combining tools such as robotic process automation (RPA) with low-code, organisations such as the NHS can turbocharge development. Thanks to the iterative design of low-code, which requires minimal intervention from IT or highly skilled coding professionals, apps can be built up to ten times faster than traditional methods used to automate manual processes.

Whilst this is certainly good news for the patient experience, automation of this nature also brings huge benefits to the people at the coal face – the healthcare workers. Facing these pressures day in and day out, many frontline employees are rapidly experiencing burnout. In addition to staff wellbeing, burnout can have a devastating impact on patient care. According to written evidence from the Royal College of Nursing following meta-analysis of 21 studies, “burnout was linked to a decline in patient safety and outcomes, and an increase in patient dissatisfaction and complaints” – making it extremely important to tackle head on. Technology that can alleviate the burden on human workers will be pivotal in the months ahead to ensure the health of the nation is prioritised.

Making effective use of available skills

ICSs also have a huge role to play in the effective use of available skills, as outlined by the NHS People Plan. Digital technology can ensure that the organisation delivers the right information, in the right hands, at the right time. This is a huge opportunity for wellness services to be integrated more comprehensively into the wider health system, to deliver joined up care to the people who need it. RPA technologies, for example, can be built into processes, via low-code platforms, to effectively route tasks to the appropriate department. And within that department, the right professional. Making use of the available skills in this way will not only lead to better responses, but it will also result in faster resolutions.

Ultimately, greater collaboration between healthcare and wellbeing organisations, through cultural change, facilitated with the right technology, will enable providers from the wider ecosystem to offer better care provision to the citizens they serve. The NHS Long Term Plan makes a clear commitment to a “digitally-enabled” future to provide digital access to NHS services for patients. In the long run, the ICS strives to create a wellness system as opposed to a care system. To create the right environment for this model to succeed, we must empower citizens to be more involved in their healthcare and the professionals that surround them to be able to share data and collaborate effectively. Delays to digital transformation in this area will only see waiting lists continue to spiral out of control and the health of the UK population decline.

Innovative technologies that enable rapid transformation will be pivotal to the success of ICSs. Now is the time to embrace these digital transformation to address this increasingly urgent issue and put data at the centre of the nation’s health.

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