A roller coaster to support technology innovation

Last week Blackpool made the news headlines with the centenary of the Blackpool illuminations. It celebrated in style giving the honour of switching on the lights to six of team GB’s medal winners. But better still, Rick Astley was also rolled out to entertain the crowds.

You now will be thinking it is definitely still the ‘silly season’ with nothing really interesting or relevant to comment on, but on the back of the illumination story another news headline coming out of Blackpool caught my eye, ‘Blackpool’s hospitals are ahead of the game when it comes to the problem of patients missing appointments’.

This came on the back of the announcement by the Department of Health (DH) which revealed nationally, one in 10 health appointments – a total of 5.5 million – were missed last year, costing the NHS millions of pounds and delaying treatment for other patients. Yet more bad news coming out of the NHS I thought!

But, what has encouraged me is that trusts like Blackpool Teaching Hospitals are actually driving initiatives to change this situation. By piloting an appointment confirmation service – which uses a mixture of agent calls and automated calls to remind patients of their appointment a few days before to give them a chance to re-arrange or cancel – it is hoped this will reduce the number of missed appointments and cut waiting times, whilst saving money too. Apparently when trialled at Plymouth Hospitals, there was a 43 percent reduction in DNA (Did Not Attend) rates, leading to an extra 4,300 appointments and saving £579,000.

Brilliant! So why aren’t more trusts using systems like this? Perhaps they are but these good news stories are never given enough exposure. This is surely an opportunity to provide examples of ‘best practice’ for others to follow and benefit from.

However, on the positive side the DH, in its announcement last week, did urge hospitals to make greater use of innovative solutions and technology to tackle the number of people who miss their appointments. Simple ideas such as texting patients and using video calling via the web, like Skype, were examples quoted by Health Minister Simon Burns. He even cited hospitals that were making use of these systems such as Newham University Hospital, who saw missed appointments fall by 11 percent through the use of Skype, and Derby Hospitals where missed appointments fell by 12,000 through text message reminders.

It did seem like the DH was on a bit of an innovation drive last week, which is always good news. As in addition it also announced the launch of the ‘Information Sharing Challenge Fund’ to encourage NHS organisations to come up with new digital services that improve patient care through the effective sharing of information. Details of the initiative were contained within a letter sent by the Department’s Ailsa Claire explaining that funding will go to those NHS organisations that come up with innovative solutions, based on the ITK (Interoperability toolkit).

So forgive me for reflecting on these announcements, as I am sure you have all read about them, but my point is that I feel this is a great start in terms of the DH encouraging innovation, but still so much more needs to be done in terms of education and awareness within the NHS. For example do trust staff really understand the use and benefits of ‘interoperabiliy’ and do we need more than a ‘challenge fund’ to make these changes happen?

Is it time for the DH to drive a specific campaign which would create real engagement with NHS communities? Something that would help to build confidence on how they can achieve real efficiencies and make a real difference to patient care through the use of technology. It is all well and good reading about these spasmodic initiatives, but now the NHS needs a focus to promote best practice and an environment built around communication, engagement and two-way dialogue.

Unlike the Blackpool roller coaster that comes to life for only one season, I hope for an NHS innovation roller coaster that lasts all year through and gets bigger, higher and faster!

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