Going digital, staying human

by Caroline Clarke

24 July 2020


Last week I hosted a webinar for the HFMA about how the finance profession can support the NHS to deliver a digital future. Given that the NHS has just deployed a number of digital platforms during the Covid crisis at a pace we could only previously dream of, I thought the webinar was brilliantly timed.

Our presenter, Patrick Mitchell, director of innovation and transformation for Health Education England, took us through the main themes of the Topol report, talking about how tech can help reduce unwarranted variation, improve safety and productivity. He described how technological developments are likely to change the clinical workforce over the next two decades and how developments in genomics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and digital medicine would lead the way. (If you missed the webinar, you can watch it here).  

Some of these developments are already here – wearables, telemedicine, apps for every kind of condition.  And some are more future facing – interventional robotics and using AI predictively to name but two. There were some great examples of where productivity benefits may come from.

For example, the use of AI in breast screening potentially could save up to 500 radiographers, freeing them up to do clinical care and improving the accuracy of readings. For clinical professions, where we have rising demand and a workforce that can’t keep up, this must be the way forward.

At the Royal Free we are now working with a major AI provider to do exactly this, and it’s something that our radiologists have embraced, because they know that we cannot keep up with demand on our own.

Patrick described the field of bioinformatics for us – bringing computer science, statistics and bioscience together so that we can better curate and mine biological and medical data. It’s a growing area and one where the UK needs to train significantly more people. And one that will help us get future-based data so that we can better understand where resources should be deployed.

I can’t recommend the Topol report highly enough. As a finance profession, we are already seeing technology drive change, and it’s been happening for decades. When I began my career as a finance trainee I used to access payroll data via a microfiche (a flat piece of film containing loads of photographs of individual payslips for those of you too young to remember). And management accounts came off a big mainframe computer that ran once a week.  

It was slow and laborious, and most of what we did revolved around facilitating good relationships with budget holders and really understanding their services as any data we produced was far too late to make any difference. If I have one anxiety about our digital future, it is that we lose those good relationships, and rely too much on data to do our jobs. We have to do both, as do our clinical colleagues.  We are a people business.

It’s really been brought home to me by the number of conversations I’ve had with people recently who have had enough of the endless Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls. Many are craving some three-dimensional human contact – as well as enough time to factor in lunch and a toilet break between those endless calls.

Having embraced these digital conferencing platforms at speed as a necessity during the first pandemic peak, we now need to work on re-humanising and re-energising our virtual workplaces and getting to know each other again!  And remember that the virtual workplace can be pretty isolating for people who have had to be at home through this last period.  So, look out for each other. Remember the soft stuff. And remember to eat.