The pandemic has transformed our relationship with healthcare services; in the past year, many of us will have attended a virtual GP consultation or a telephone consultation with a doctor who may have been working from home, with full digital access to your health records. As we urgently moved to minimise face-to-face contact in March 2020, we’ve seen rapid adoption of digital technology across the NHS in Wales.
In fact, technology has been absolutely critical to supporting the NHS response to Covid-19, and the last year has highlighted the wider role digital technology can play in supporting and improving our health and care services.
But what does this mean for those of us using NHS services, and our health? What is digital technology and how will it affect the way we access healthcare advice, support and treatment in the future?
Helen Thomas, Chief Executive of Digital Health and Care Wales explains:
It’s everything from the IT systems clinicians use, to the technical infrastructure that lets you know when you have your vaccine appointment. It’s there to help doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals to do their job and support patients.
This can be providing and maintaining the technology they use day-to-day, making sure they have access to the most relevant, up-to-date information and data to equip them to make the best decisions about patient care. At other times, it’s about reviewing the systems and ways of working that exist in the NHS and seeing how they can be streamlined and made more efficient, and then using technology to develop solutions.
Digital healthcare is also used by patients – for example, through the pandemic there were over 5,000 GP video consultations every week. And like many other people, I use the contact tracing app to monitor COVID-19 transmission whenever I enter a bar, café or restaurant.
But most of the time at the moment, digital technology is used behind the scenes to streamline processes and improve care.
We’re already using technology to do things that used to be primarily offline – to do our work, to study, to book a haircut, to communicate with family and friends – so a digital first approach to healthcare is aligned with our lifestyles.
The Welsh Government established Digital Health and Care Wales as a new special health authority to reflect the importance of digital technology in changing and improving our healthcare and delivering a better experience for patients and health professionals.
A digital-first approach can mean better communication between clinicians and patients – allowing virtual consultations and appointments when face to face isn’t possible, or providing better access to information and patient records so clinicians can pick up where they left off with patient care.
It can also help ensure that every health board in Wales has access to the same patient information wherever care is provided– so if you are referred to a different hospital or specialist for treatment, they already have your previous health information.
This leads to an improved, joined-up and streamlined service for patients.
We’ve recently introduced a brand new digital service that will completely change working practices for nurses and other members of the multi-disciplinary teams in Wales.
The Welsh Nursing Care Record, has replaced the time-consuming paper forms nurses had to fill in whenever a patient is admitted for care. Now they can complete assessments at the patient’s bedside on a mobile tablet, or other handheld device, saving time, improving accuracy, and cutting back on duplication.
But we want to introduce more digital services for use by people in Wales to make it easier and more convenient to access the health and care services they need, mirroring their experience of other aspects of everyday life and replacing outdated paper-based processes. For example, being able to receive correspondence in the way they wish, possibly through an app on their mobile phone, and to see and change their healthcare appointments online to a more convenient time or day.
New digital solutions will mean care providers will find it easier to join up all the information about the person they are looking after while reducing the time needed for paper administrative processes.
It's early days yet, but we are at the start of some very exciting new developments.
We are a Special Health Authority with a Board and a remit to lead on the national digital services needed now and in the future. It We provide IT support and improved technology in the NHS, develop systems and services to support clinicians, and brings together information across hospitals, health boards, primary care and industry.
A new organisation and name signals a change in emphasis and places a strong focus on the national technology and data services we need in today’s world. DHCW is focused on mobilisation and accessibility of data and information to health professionals and patients as well as integration, AI (artificial intelligence) and taking the best examples from other consumer-driven digital services.
Digital Health and Care Wales is constantly developing, implementing, and improving programmes and services to streamline healthcare.
For example, the Wales Clinical Portal (WCP) is a clever web application, bringing together patient data and information from all seven of Wales’ health boards into one, central digital record which can be accessed by healthcare professionals across Wales.
Doctors using the WCP have access to more than a million digital patient records which include test results, images and scans. More than 28,000 healthcare professionals use the platform., which has also been turned into a mobile app, meaning that wherever you are in Wales, your clinicians will be equipped with all the information they need to care for you at their fingertips.
Choose Pharmacy is another example of a Digital Health and Care Wales service created to enable better patient care. The platform allows community pharmacies to keep a record for each patient, allowing them to help people with minor ailments, treat sore throats or dispense emergency medications, freeing up GPs’ time. The service is integrated within the NHS Wales network, giving pharmacists access to medication details within patients’ GP records, helping them to make more informed decisions.
One high profile example of DHCW’s work is the Welsh Immunisation System, the digital system which was rapidly developed and launched in December 2020 to deliver Wales’ COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
The system was created by NHS Wales, for the people of Wales and automatically schedules appointments, sending out letters and texts to patients and recording details about each and every vaccine administered in Wales. With many of us now awaiting our second COVID-19 jab, the system automatically schedules follow-up appointments too. Having a central digital system processing this information allows vaccinations to be delivered as efficiently as possible.
While some of us may be confident using technology and apps to access the services we need, there are still significant gaps in digital literacy in Wales. I know from experience that some people can struggle and there are those who don’t have access to modern digital tools or the internet. In these circumstances people will be supported and will have alternative options to access services and information, enabling them to remain active participants in their health and well-being. But it’s important for patients to know that digital isn’t replacing the existing services in the NHS.
The use and implementation of some digital services accelerated very quickly in the pandemic to reduce face to face contact, but there will always be a need for offline services too.
Keeping health and care data safe online is a central focus.
All personal information collected by NHS Wales is protected using the highest standards of internet and cyber security, and complies fully with data privacy legislation.
Our digital systems are designed to help the NHS run efficiently, to support our doctors, nurses and health staff in providing better healthcare for the people of Wales.