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How digital solutions can help the NHS staffing crisis

How digital solutions can help the NHS staffing crisis


The NHS needs digital solutions to help the staffing crisis. A digital-first approach is critical and NHS organisations require the resources, hours and return on investment. An AI-powered automation and customer engagement platform that can integrate with legacy and external systems is an opportunity to deliver the change needed to ease the burden on healthcare workers. Nigel Hall, Director of Client Health Solutions at Netcall explores the benefits patients will gain from digital support and how a suite of technologies can work with workers.
Editor: Lara Althorp Last Updated: 15-Feb-2023

Recent ambulance strikes reflect greater issues across the National Health Service (NHS). Last year, staff were quitting at a record rate of 400 per week. Stress, lack of work-life balance and insufficient pay are reportedly driving nurses to quit in record numbers, with over 40,000 leaving in 2022. December saw nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland go on strike, marking the largest staffing protest in NHS history. Such strikes are planned to continue into this year.

The message from the health workforce is one of being overworked and underpaid, with significant pressure to deliver savings amid tight budgets, leading to mass burnout.

Widely reportedly to be under-resourced, understaffed and underfunded, with a record-high waitlist of over seven million, the NHS is struggling to effectively respond to the challenges of elective recovery and the pressures on emergency care. Strikes are likely to exacerbate existing fragilities. 

Why is digitisation needed for the NHS to bounce back?

A digital-first approach is critical. NHS organisations require the resources, hours and returns on investment that can be facilitated by the right technologies. An AI-powered automation and customer engagement platform that can integrate with legacy and external systems is an opportunity to deliver the change needed to ease the burden on healthcare workers. This can be delivered at pace and in a cost-effective way, compared to traditional development methods. Digitisation presents opportunities to improve patient care, reduce administrative load and minimise inefficiencies.

How does digitisation support NHS staff and better service patients?

Rather than the historic approach of buying a solution ‘off the shelf’, which often leads to dissatisfaction with functionality or supplier responsiveness, solutions can be built to meet an organisation’s individual requirements.

A comprehensive automation and customer engagement platform will include transformative technologies, such as a low-code platform, digital contact centre solutions, robotic process automation (RPA), pre-built machine learning models and omnichannel messaging offerings. The technologies work complementarily, driving the best outcomes for healthcare workers and patients.

With an agnostic platform, opportunities for integration across both telephony and existing legacy solutions bring the ability to move, rather than duplicate, information within the organisation. This provides the visibility required to attend to patients effectively without additional work.

Whilst digital provides significant opportunities to improve interactions with patients, consideration must also be given to those who are unwilling or unable to embrace digital solutions.

How a suite of technologies can work with workers

Healthcare workers can delegate repetitive and routine tasks to RPA, giving them time to focus on higher value work, such as direct patient care. For example, as part of the discharge process, pharmacies need to halt dispensing medication for patients. This can be a time-consuming, laborious process, which could easily be automated.

Low-code can be used to develop applications to support a variety of tasks. A web-based solution could be developed with low-code to replace manual paper or ‘Excel’ data collection. This new solution could be designed to be responsive and intuitive, providing reports and notifications to staff. This reduces paper, frees up processing time and generates efficiencies – and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible with a low-code application platform.

Adopting an automation and customer engagement platform that includes an application sharing community empowers healthcare organisations to share their solutions with other organisations and benefit from the innovations of others. As an illustration, several have benefited from pre-built applications that communicate appointment reminders and, subsequently, reduce their DNA (did not attend) rate.

Where possible, patients can self-service. For example, they can manage their appointments through a patient portal and omnichannel contact centre designed specifically for the healthcare sector. This reduces DNA rates by an average of 48%, preventing unnecessary waste of health professionals’ time and maintaining a high level of clinic utilisation.

With an omnichannel messaging solution, all patient conversations are brought into one place. Such visibility prevents wasting time asking patients for previously requested information or attempting to locate specific data. Incoming patient enquiries are automatically rerouted to the best staff member or team. A chatbot attends to simple enquiries, such as patients requesting background information. Together, these outcomes drive worker productivity – call times reduce and first-time call resolutions increase, utilising time effectively. Above all, whilst such digital solutions are likely to improve interactions for the majority of patients, continuing to provide integrated telephony solutions is crucial for those who are digitally excluded by desire or circumstance.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is one of the UK’s largest trusts, providing healthcare to about 1.5 million patients annually. By adopting a healthcare specific omnichannel contact centre solution, it now answers 95% of calls within one minute and has reduced the call abandon rate to less than 5%. This has freed up previously overburdened resources, improving patient care and employee experience.

Similarly, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust’s omnichannel contact centre and patient portal has reduced resolution times as referrals are effectively signposted. The portal sends automated texts and emails instead of paper letters, helping reduce DNAs by 56% and eliminating the production of 340,000 letters per year. The ease of the platform has led 70% of patients to utilise the platform, giving staff the time needed to still effectively accommodate those who opt out of using the portal.

A platform designed specifically with the health sector in mind best supports staff with  workloads, mitigates the impacts of burnout and empowers organisations with the flexibility needed to cost-effectively drive change. This enables organisations to integrate solutions into their existing infrastructure – important given that a significant number of NHS estates operate over 300 legacy systems, which silo data and obstruct the free movement of information.

A solution that is vendor agnostic is key for effectively integrating with such infrastructure. Many NHS organisations have struggled with traditional suppliers and digital solutions that restrict their ability to be agile and innovative, curtailing innovation and the free-movement of data.

Why are unmodernised legacy systems problematic? Because convoluted infrastructures prevent patients and healthcare professionals from being equipped with the information needed to efficiently get through the backlog of NHS enquiries. If a patient attends an appointment but the doctor then realises they haven’t received the needed test results or, alternatively, a patient doesn’t realise they can’t eat before a certain test, valuable time is unnecessarily wasted.

A digital-first strategy is critical for the future of the NHS, as it is the only way to address the processing issues across its organisations at scale. It presents a way to navigate the waters of a reportedly under resourced, tight-budgeted and overworked sector. Not only are staff alleviated of much of the burden on their shoulders, but they are also provided the time to do more value-adding and fulfilling work. This benefits healthcare professionals and patients alike.

Over the long-term, historical and culturally engrained work practices will require review and potential change to enable staff with the ability to focus on the most beneficial and patient-serving activities. Whilst being mindful not to leave those that are challenged by digital behind, such solutions are instrumental to bringing about an NHS that is able to fulfil its duty to patients without an overworked workforce.