Barely a day goes by without a new shiny gizmo or gadget coming on the market with the promise to transform the healthcare sector.

Last year health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced "the tech revolution is coming to the NHS" while launching his technology vision entitled ‘The Future of Healthcare’.

However our patients, public and frontline staff must always come before the technology. It’s vital we look at what people need first because if they don’t mean anything to the person that’s going to use them then they’re not really relevant.

I work as a digital leader for Healthier Lancashire & South Cumbria and I’ve always been a ‘people person’. My role as digital leader is about empowering people to become more active digitally in managing their health and wellbeing.

I’m from County Donegal and I’ve always been the life and soul of the party and a social butterfly. I’ve always taken a similar ‘people first’ approach in my career in the NHS, and consider one of my best skills to be my ability to join the dots, connecting people with opportunities for collaboration.

Prior to this role, I was an advanced physiotherapy practitioner, assessing people with musculo-skeletal problems, triaging them, sending them for investigations where necessary, and often referring them on to other services, such as to a surgeon or to a pain management programme.

The starting point was always what was best for the patient and what did they want from their care. I’ve always asked the question “what matters to you?” which is so much more meaningful than “what’s the matter with you?”

I’ve taken the same approach in my role in transforming services with Healthier Lancashire & South Cumbria.

We’ve just done a big piece of work talking to the people of Lancashire and South Cumbria, surveying them, asking them what we could do to help them use digital to manage their health and well-being, and what challenges they might face in trying to do so. The findings are going to shape what we do over the next few years, as they are currently being incorporated into our delivery plan.

Healthier Lancashire & South Cumbria is a collective of different organisations across health and care in Lancashire and South Cumbria and we are all about partnership-working. We’re about trying to do things better for the patients by pooling our resources and collaborating to offer better quality, more equitable care at a more affordable cost.

The fundamental tools that we are promoting are firstly about people getting access to their GP records and appointments online. To me that’s the bread and butter of empowering people through digital.

The more a person knows about themselves, their body and the consequences of the choices they make and any treatment they receive, the more confident they will be in managing their health and wellbeing.

There’s lots of shiny stuff out there, but I think we need to get these basics right first.

We’ve also developed the online NHS Online Orb app, which will bring together all digital services to support health and wellbeing in an interactive, accessible format. It’s currently available on Android and very soon will be on iOS. You can find out more about it by watching this really cool video:

The NHS Online Orb is about giving people a central place on their phone or device to store and find their health information. I describe it as a gateway into other health and care resources - a simple, single point of access that’s really easy and intuitive to navigate. The app supports people to find information about NHS services and about their condition, to access online GP appointments and online prescription requests, and to find other apps to support their wellbeing or manage their health condition via the health app review site ORCHA.

The important thing to remember is the patient always comes before the technology. The majority of the people that we're talking to have smartphones in their pockets so we are using what they’ve already got to help them become healthier. New technology that hasn’t got the needs of the patient at the heart of it won't work.

That said, we also fully acknowledge that smartphones and tablets are not available or accessible to all, and some people simply don’t want to use them. It’s as important to us that we continue to offer those people choice in how to access services and equal access to resources and information, as it is to promote the use of digital tools to those who do want to and are able to use them.

The patient is at the heart of absolutely everything we do. Our entire digital strategy is designed with people at the centre. We’re currently preparing our delivery plan for 2019-20 onwards and everything that we are proposing to do puts the patient back at the heart of it. For example in looking at shared care records the question we ask is: How can we support patients to access shared care records?

We’re looking at social prescribing at the moment and how digital infrastructure and architecture can support social prescribing. But it still boils down to: how does someone who may be feeling lonely or suffer from physical or mental illness find out about their local community resources and assets? This is why we've gone out and road tested with patients and with the public to get their feedback and opinion before we do things.

You can’t impose technology on people and that applies to frontline staff as well as the patients. When staff are enforced to use a new digital product, adoption is never as effective as it would be if the staff were involved in identifying the problem, co-designing the solution, and in the implementation process.

Again it goes back to the point of starting with a problem rather than starting with a solution. If you start with a problem and identify the tech that can support it, rather than starting by finding a shiny solution and then looking for a problem to fix, you have a much better chance of success.

And it all boils down to relationships – the success of any transformation, digital or otherwise, is about building relationships with the people who will be using the services or products, clear communication and collaboration, and listening authentically to what those people might have to say.

  • Linda Vernon is a digital leader with Healthier Lancashire & South Cumbria. linda.vernon@nhs.net @vernonlinda
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