Under the strain of the pandemic, the NHS has been forced to embrace technology
During the evening of April 14, Sonia Patel issued a call for help. The busy London NHS Trust where she was responsible for data and technology had recently declared a critical incident and one of its hospitals was running out of beds for the most severe coronavirus patients. Hospital chiefs scrambled to create more space and introduced measures, such as stopping routine operations, to stem the emergency situation.
The steps may have saved lives but caused knock-on effects for the day-to-day operation of the London North West University NHS Trust, which has the second number of Covid-19 deaths in the capital. Patients,
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including those without coronavirus, had visitors limited. Patel wanted to introduce a system for virtual visits – something that would let ward staff book and make video calls to patients’ loved ones.
“We couldn’t find the right sol
ution based on some of the existing technologies,” she says. Turning to social media with the plea for assistance she asked if any companies could build something new. “Time is precious,” she tweeted just before 8pm. “DM me”.
Within 48 hours, Made Tech, a firm that works with government bodies to improve their tech systems, had built a prototype virtual visits system for free and had it approved for tests. It is a simple piece of software: a web app lets hospital staff enter the details of a patient’s family or friends and sends an SMS to them with a time for a virtual visit to take place. Staff can book recurring calls and the system is designed to be low effort for them.
“The whole point of this is to enable ward staff to schedule calls on behalf of patients who might not be able to do that,” Morton says. During beta trials in 66 hospital wards, new mothers who have been separated from their children due to coronavirus transmission risks have interacted with their babies. Hospital chaplaincies have also been looking at how they can help people pray and deliver last rights.
“We had some distraught nurses at one point, there were some patients at the end of life and they couldn’t connect with their loved ones in the early days,” Patel says. “For them to be gifted with that technology actually made a real difference.”
Her request to quickly build and deploy new technology was unusual for healthcare, but coronavirus is unprecedented. The slow and imperfect systems that once ruled the NHS have completely broken down during the pandemic, allowing for sweeping changes from doctors’ surgeries to hospital wards. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
During the pandemic technology has overhauled how the NHS interacts with those who are at every level – and much of it involves pre-existing systems being adopted for the first time. Health secretary Matt Hancock has said parts of the NHS should consider themselves “digital first”. Doctors in large hospitals and small GP surgeries alike have had to embrace remote working and face-to-face appointments are virtually extinct.
Underpinning these radical reforms are companies profiting from the NHS by quickly scaling their platforms and installing new services with very little public accountability. The NHS has struck deals with Google, Microsoft and Palantir for data analysis but at a GP level very little is known about the number of deals some firms have made. Tech procurement exploded after government officials declared normal purchasing rules do not apply during the health crisis and in some cases contracts can be awarded without any competition.