The COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on the NHS — as it prioritised treating COVID patients and other urgent life-saving treatments and procedures. The result: mounting costs and a ballooning backlog of people waiting for hospital procedures and surgeries, with those waiting over a year exceeding 300,000.
Reducing waiting times is challenging on the back of the NHS staffing crisis, leading to 100,000 employment vacancies. Do Not Attends (DNAs) and administration costs persist, and still include large spend on paper appointment letters.
A digital priority
The need for digitisation in the healthcare system is clear. It can save costs, improve operational efficiencies and cut patient backlogs. NHS England has recognised this need, prioritising national investments — to the 45 least-digitised NHS provider trusts — to help increase the rate of digital transformation across the entire healthcare system.
The Department of Health and Social Care recently released an updated version of their data strategy, following the Goldacre Review. The review highlighted key issues around siloed and fragmented data management systems, causing unnecessary costs and limiting data access. The updated plan includes a £25 million fund, from 2022 to 2023, to drive digital transformation.
Patient portals are a valuable investment area for NHS organisations. They can help drive patient engagement, manage appointments and resolve concerns faster. And automating the appointment management process gives health workers much-needed time back. It reduces costly DNAs, helps avoid wasted patient journeys with pre-screenings and improves patient experiences.
But special care needs to be taken — to ensure any solution brings all patients along on the journey. That includes accommodating those who prefer analogue services, while still delivering the benefits of digital transformation.
So, how do hospitals make sure no patient gets left behind? By choosing a solution that connects an organisation’s patient portal with its booking and contact centre technology. And expanding (not narrowing) patient choice.
Patient portal: a digital gateway
NHS England wants to “exploit the full potential of digital technologies”. The COVID-19 recovery plan includes using digital tools and data to better manage waiting lists, supporting staff and patients along the way. While the move to a digitally-enabled healthcare system is needed, many trusts are struggling with digital transformation demands and cost pressures.
But there are cost-effective options that offer relatively quick returns on investments — and opportunity for incremental digitisation. Patient portals, when designed to integrate all tech, digital and analogue needs, start by offering immediate tangible value to patients, staff and the organisation.
In one striking example, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (HHFT) reduced their number of letter templates from 8,000 to three (a drop of 99.9%).
Many of us have first-hand experience of receiving letters past our appointment date (or containing inaccurate or inconsistent details). A patient portal removes these errors, using accurate data to create letters. And by delivering timely digital messages to those patients who opt in, there’s a saving of 65% of postage and printing costs —and countless hours of administration time.
HHFT’s digital uptake of their portal reached 65% in just three months. That means many patients benefited from the system change almost immediately.
Rapid uptake and the importance of choice
With smart patient portals, digital patient uptake rates can reach up to 70% — within three months of deployment. And this uptake is good news for using the portals’ built-in potential for incorporating specialty applications — like clinical portals — because patients can seamlessly switch between services on a portal they’re already using.
But this level of patient adoption is only possible when patients can still choose their channel. While some will move online, some will still want to communicate via phone or letters. And some will want both.
Every patient should enjoy an end-to-end experience — and be able to communicate with health providers in their chosen way. By connecting portals to contact centres, patients who avoid digital channels aren’t lost in the transition. Instead, advisors are given access to this information — using this data to better understand patient queries, avoid frustration (of patients having to repeat themselves) and prevent loss of vital information.
Bridging legacy and advanced technologies
NHS trusts use a broad mix of backend systems — making it tricky to find a solution that integrates well. Effective patient portals are designed to work with multiple backend systems.
This is especially important for Integrated Care Systems (ICSs). These joined up systems (vs. past locally-led systems) see partnerships and organisations working together to deliver health and care services. So, if five hospitals work together — each with their own electronic patient record and systems — they need to feel and look the same for patients and staff across the network. On the front end, data must flow seamlessly across different infrastructures across the ICS — working in the same way across a varied system landscape.
Digital wins for patients and healthcare
The government has made digital pledges, but without the right strategy (and partners) these goals can’t be realised. It means choosing the right digital gateway for appointment management to:
- Ease the burden on organisations and staff
- Deliver overdue services to waiting patients
- Enable communication via digital and traditional letters and calls
- Prioritise and manage appointments 24/7
- Reallocate hospital resources to optimise use
- Drive waiting list figures down
Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust made its appointment management easier and less stressful for parents and carers. They adopted a patient portal that offers 24/7 access and centralises information, making sure the right information is accessible, as needed. All in all, patient portals have already arranged almost two and a half million digital patient appointments across almost 500 hospitals.
Beyond appointment management, well-integrated patient portals give hospitals access to real-time data — to gain visibility and control over all channels. Using this data, organisations can combine patient portals with low-code and robotic process automation (RPA) to unleash artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, enabling data-driven insights. And they can customise their solution to meet their specific needs.
Disjointed gaps are replaced by a streamlined, integrated, end-to-end digital health platform. That means no patient is left behind and pressure on staff is lifted. And insights can be used to observe trends, adapt existing processes and see what systems would benefit from digitisation.
Our overstretched healthcare system, and its workers, need help. While the idea of a massive digital overhaul to sort waiting list and staffing crises, it’s not realistic for all hospitals. With an effective patient portal, hospitals and patients (at different maturity levels) can work together to usher in a new era of healthcare.