Outdated technology is putting patients at risk – but there’s an app for that

The doctors of today grew up digital, but the UK’s hospitals are a technology time warp. Top down solutions to the IT backlog have had limited success and, unsurprisingly, the plan to go paperless by 2018 just hasn’t happened.

So why is this a big deal? And most importantly, what does it mean for patients Antiquated communication systems – pagers, landlines and the not-so-occasional fax machine – mean health professionals waste hours per week looking for the information they need. Poor technology results in delays, errors and oversights, and is hugely frustrating for front-line medical staff. If your doctor looks stressed, it might be because her bleep has been sounding non-stop since the start of her shift and she’s spent most of her day hunting a landline phone to answer it.

The NHS does a fantastic job of delivering cutting-edge healthcare, but progress is being delivered in a massively outdated framework. And whilst thoughts regarding redress may turn toward expansive IT overhauls or outsourced consultancy, true solutions might come closer to the ground.

A wave of grassroots innovation is beginning to sweep through healthcare, and it’s already begun in the average hospital ward.

97 per cent of doctors are now using WhatsApp to communicate at work. If your workplace can’t provide you with a tool you need in order to be efficient, you’re going to find your own solution – a ‘workaround’, until something better comes along. This represents a form of innovation in its own right.

As any doctor, nurse or patient would tell you, the iPhone has crept onto the ward. The average smartphone is now more powerful than the famous Deep Blue supercomputer that beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov, and pretty much everyone carries one. Doctors use them daily to determine drug dosages, search for statistics, ask one another for advice, and communicate within clinical teams. There’s an app to test a patient’s vision, to calculate their risk of a heart attack, to tell you how much insulin they need or predict the date their baby will be born. The great advantage of the smartphone for busy doctors is its weight – it’s a formulary, textbook and pocket torch all wrapped up in a handy 138 grams, perfect for the average day covering several kilometres of hospital corridor.

With the demand faced by the NHS higher than ever, the time that this technology saves is all but life-saving.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals are busy embracing the technology revolution. Pressed for time and with ever more patients to see, the need for innovative clinicians is at a peak. Working in the NHS, staff are pressed to create their own solutions. Cue the exciting new technologies we’re starting to see emerge from the ashes of the political drives to go digital – software that connects professionals to patients. These include Babylon, Ask the Midwife and many others, as well as those which connect patients to information about their own health, such as HealthUnlocked and myCOPD.

The range of technology we have access to in everyday life is vast and extraordinary, yet the average NHS ward is equipped with a few outdated PCs, a landline, and a raft of radio ‘bleepers’. Healthcare is doing its best to update its ‘official’ communications arsenal, but embracing the innovations that are being created or adopted by clinicians themselves is perhaps where attention needs to be focused. The smartphone revolution in healthcare is fascinating because it might just allow the NHS to leapfrog directly from paper to pocket, effectively bypassing the age of the desktop computer. We’re already seeing the tangible difference mobile phones are making to healthcare – embracing this era could give hospitals a fortuitous edge over other more progressive sectors.

For things to improve, and improve quickly, we should make use of what we already have. Healthcare professionals are already finding innovative solutions to their problems, with the technology they already own. Top down, expensive software solutions may not be the answer; we should listen to grassroots staff who are telling us what they need. Harnessing existing solutions could bring about even bigger benefits, because the reality is, when things get better for doctors and nurses, they also get better for patients.

Dr Lydia Yarlott is the founder of Forward Health