While it's exciting to think of the long-term impact of brain-computer interfaces and virtual reality in healthcare, digital leaders in the NHS face the much more immediate challenge of using constrained budgets to help improve administrative processes and patient outcomes.
NHS CIOs need to maintain a careful balance between structural investment and leading-edge innovation – and in many cases, the priority is still basic infrastructural IT. So given the challenging mix of legacy systems and constrained budgets, what technology has got the biggest potential to change healthcare for the better? Four NHS CIOs give us their views.
1. Using cloud-based platforms to boost collaboration
Lisa Emery, CIO at Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, is particularly excited about the impact of collaboration on healthcare. She says her excitement about the potential for collaboration is replicated across her team and out into the trust's non-IT workforce.
"I'm talking about Office 365, because that's what we're deploying, although we're not wedded to Microsoft. I think the ability to create a working environment where you can be available, wherever you are, means you can effectively choose the device you wish to communicate with people on, and you can be much more agile," she says.
Emery, who spoke with ZDNet at the recent HETT conference, says clinicians are beginning to see the benefits of being able to work simultaneously across multiple sites in different settings.
"I think this mobility piece for us at the moment is quite key," she says. "It's about offering people choice over the device they might work best with and giving them a consistent look and feel about the way they interact with the organisation. It's like providing a consistent digital front door to the organisation."
2. Exploiting artificial intelligence to analyse information
Allison Nation, associate director of digital strategy at NHS Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group, is running a pioneering initiative that uses AI to analyse the complexity of patient health. Her experiences lead her to conclude that AI could be a game changer, but she says the full impact of the technology is hard to tell.
"It's too early in terms of our project – I think it's going to be a couple of years yet before we see real progress," says Nation. "But we have to look after healthcare through the implementation of the right services. I think that if we don't engage with digital services as a whole now, then we are going to be tripping ourselves up in the future."
The pilot project uses an algorithm in Bering's Brave AI system to analyse the complexity of patient health at Axbridge Surgery in Somerset. Nation says the trial has important implications for the use of emerging tech in the NHS. While funding for additional pilot projects in Somerset has been secured, she says the potential impact of AI more widely is dependent on its integration with other technology platforms.
"We need to make sure that we're providing the joined-up transfer of information, so the patient hopefully only tells their story once," she says. "There's lots of different elements to it. We have to build up a whole picture, not a partial picture. It's no good a doctor having this fantastic thing in one area if they don't know the basics about the patients in front of them."
3. Implementing the Internet of Things to increase connectivity
Bill Fawcett has spent the majority of his career in the private sector, investigating how connectivity can create benefits in the defence industry. Now as CIO at Leeds and York NHS Partnership Foundation Trust, he thinks the Internet of Things (IoT) could be the key technology that helps healthcare organisations to unlock the value in the data they hold.
"There's a lot of pressure to bring people into hospital and look after them in hospital with whatever conditions they might have," he says. "I think as the IoT becomes more refined, and as you combine that technology with artificial intelligence, it will become much easier to look at the data that we are using to manage a service for combined groups of organisations, whether it's mental health, physical health, care, or whatever it might be."
For the NHS, the IoT could present big benefits by enabling hospitals to track and monitor patients from the moment they arrive at hospital – or even in the home – with real-time data from sensors being automatically added to patient records without the need for nurses to take readings or update charts. That's something Fawcett envisages, too.
"Once you start to open that up, you start to see that you can actually make people safe and secure and help them without dragging them into these huge institutions and leaving them there for long periods of time," he says.
"If there was some support wrapped around patients, to allow them to sustain and thrive at home, I think I think that would be a revolution. I don't think we're there yet but that's my hope."
4. Promoting open-data architectures to increase information accessibility
Rather than suggesting one particular technology has the most potential to change healthcare, Tracey Watson, CIO at Northern Care Alliance NHS Group, instead focuses on architecture and the work that needs to be done to ensure data is open and accessible.
"What I mean by that is we're still a long way off being able to liberate the data," says Watson. "And if we want to do more in the precision medicine space, we've got to improve the way in which we collect data, and we've got to improve the accessibility as well. I still think lots needs to be done, especially from the centre, to help localities to get there."
Watson believes IT leaders across UK healthcare must give precedence to investing in the IT infrastructure that underlies their organisations, including a fully accessible electronic patient record system. She says CIOs should focus on system interoperability and find ways to ensure they have the right governance to help healthcare staff share data.
"Our work shouldn't be about locking data into particular business models or proprietary models. It should be about looking at open platforms and adhering to standards that allow us to share information. I still think we're a way off in the NHS, but I do think people are clearer now about the ambition," says Watson.