Finance staff: raising digital awareness

by Patrick Mitchell

13 July 2021

Finance professionals are key to the digital transformation agenda and need a good understanding of what digital healthcare can deliver.

The events of the pandemic over the last 15 months have shown how quickly our lives can be transformed, whether that be in our homes or at work.

The NHS is far behind other industries in its use of digital technologies. But last year’s turmoil, and the speed at which things changed, has brought most of us to the realisation that we can transform our services by embracing technology safely and using it where it has greatest impact.

From online consultations and contact-tracing apps through to the adoption of e-learning in training our future and current workforce, the NHS has shown the breadth of what can be achieved. Our job now is to review this learning, so we can adopt and embed what worked well and modify those areas that require adjustment.

Delivering value with digital technologiesDr Eric Topol’s report on the impact of digital technologies on the NHS workforce (Preparing the healthcare workforce to deliver the digital future) was launched over two years ago. Since then, Health Education England (HEE) has been promoting the work and direction set out by the report’s panel of experts.  All the recommendations are now included in commissioned work within HEE’s programmes, most included within the Genomics or Digital Readiness programmes.

Finance staff are one of the key groups that will need to be ready for the digital agenda. The finance community plays a critical role in supporting the allocation of resources, monitoring their use and providing evidence for productivity improvements. With this central position in organisations, they can play a critical role in providing evidence for prioritisation for service and digital transformation, leading to workforce redesign and changes that offer new ways to deploy skills and capabilities.

Now a new HFMA programme, supported by Health Education England (HEE), has been launched to raise awareness among finance professionals about what digital healthcare can deliver – see Delivering value with digital technologies.

Topol was impressed by how universality in the NHS provides such a strong basis for a common value set centred around the patient.  He believed this was one of our greatest assets, providing the UK a strong platform to be a world leader in genomics, digital medicine, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. 

The report acknowledged that 80% of the change required was about people and organisational behaviour and development, and only 20% was about the actual technologies. Hearts and minds would drive the benefits realisation required for digital deployment, leading to service transformation.

This has been proven throughout the pandemic and we now have the opportunity to complete the drive for change and not slip back into old ways of working.

You may ask why healthcare is so far behind other customer-focused industries such as retail, travel and banking in the adoption of digital solutions? Investment can only be part of that answer.  Organisations in other sectors have used agile transformation techniques to design their services around the client. They have then used digital solutions to connect and relied on the service user to take responsibility for data entry and quality.

We must now follow their lead in the NHS, ensuring service, digital and workforce transformation activities are not done in isolation from one another. Change in the NHS isn’t easy and arguably it has taken the crisis to move us forward. But we do now have an opportunity and we must take it.

Strong leadership is critical in setting out and delivering an organisation’s digital strategy. NHS boards cannot simply leave their digital responsibilities to their chief information officer (CIO) or clinical chief information officer (CCIO).

You would not be appointable on a board in the banking or retail industries if you were not digitally literate in the industry’s specific needs. We are not there yet in the NHS, but we are making progress. And as part of the HEE-led digital readiness programme, NHS Providers is providing full-day board digital awareness workshops along with peer learning events and strategy guides.

There are some big opportunities. The impact of AI in clinical services is already growing and HEE has supported a free on-line MOOC (massive open online course) in conjunction with the University of Manchester, which provides a helpful initiation to the subject area.

I also predict that the roles of the bioinformatician, informatician and data scientist will take centre stage for most clinical teams in next few years. They bring an ability to write and then use AI-driven algorithms to analyse big data sets and show trends in large patient groups or populations that were previously not so readily identifiable. This will provide opportunities to find patients not yet known to the service or predict disease patterns across a whole population.

The use of clinical data will drive further opportunities for clinicians to work with data analysts and informaticians as part for the digital community. But it will also provide a further area where the finance community can participate and influence where resources are deployed in order to gain the greatest benefits in terms of patient care improvement and clinical productivity.

The international evidence of immersive technology in education also shows that the careful use of virtual reality (fully immersive experience with full headsets) and augmented reality (where headsets can add digital objects to a real environment) can enhance the user experience and educational impact.

HEE is currently introducing this technology. There are pilots across several allied health professions supporting clinical placements and it is also being used to help trainee doctors and dentists catch up on their competency attainment post Covid. These technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we train our future workforce and how we invest time in clinical placement activity.

Over the last year in particular, the NHS has proven it can transform, embracing and accelerating implementation of digital technologies. We must not slip backwards now these gains have been achieved. One thing is for certain – the digital revolution is here and moving forward with or without you – that choice is made. But how will the finance community engage?

For more details on the HEE-supported HFMA programme, see Delivering value with digital technologies

An HFMA roundtable recently discussed the finance role in the wider adoption of digital healthcare