Digitalising healthcare: what can the NHS learn from other industries?

Fiona Grace|11th October 2019

It seems like the whole world and his dog are talking about digital health, and have been for quite some time now. In fact, the term is more often than not accompanied with air quotes and an eye roll as we all engage in the cat fight to become more digital. Although consumer organisations have harnessed the power of digital to better engage and serve customers, healthcare has fallen behind.

Often, regulatory barriers and the complexity of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries are blamed for this lag in digital adoption. However, digitalisation is not about developing shiny new technologies; instead, it is about finding a need and creating the most customer-centric and efficient solution. This is something every healthcare organisation can do successfully, if it truly understands its stakeholders.

If you asked a patient, a physician, a pharmaceutical rep, or the average person on the street what digital health means to them, they would come back with a plethora of different answers. However, one thing every answer would have in common is it would be based on the individual’s personal experience having been influenced by the usefulness and usability of the technology. That’s why digital health is so important: everyone is a stakeholder in their healthcare; so, by extension, everyone is a stakeholder in digital health.

This topic was recently addressed at the Digital Health and Care Congress run by ‘The King’s Fund’, which I attended back in May. The expert panel outlined the strategy for the digitalisation of the UK National Health Service (NHS) and explained how it intends to meet the needs of all its stakeholders.

There was a great excitement in the room, but also a sense of urgency. Delegates were excited about the way technology could be harnessed to improve patient care. However, it became clear that the NHS is an established contender in a game of ‘digital catch-up’, exasperated by commercial trends in technological advancements. Despite this, the NHS has every intention of catching up.

“As the company has grown, it has become less reactive to the ‘me too’ trends of the market and instead is becoming a market shaper, solving problems for customers before they even knew they had them”

Two things struck me during the talk: the first was the openness and willingness of the NHS leadership to learn from past mistakes and also from others’ successes – whether within or outside the healthcare industry. The second came to light during the Q&A session, during which the vast majority of questions from the audience (from which the majority were physicians) were concerned with how the NHS intends to ensure all digital initiatives serve a real purpose for their patients.

When boiled down, what this really means is for a digital initiative to be successful, the design must be informed by and rooted in the understanding of the patient’s needs, challenges, motivations, and behaviours. Often, we hear that the healthcare and consumer industries face vastly different challenges. As a result, there is some resistance to learning from consumer organisations’ successes. However, this is a trap the NHS is refusing to fall into. Patients do not cease to be consumers when they develop an illness; they have been used to may years of digitalisation, and the patients entering their 20s today have never experienced a world without digitalisation. A majority of us are used to using smart phone apps to order food and taxis, to do online banking, to send emails, and to interact with friends, family, and strangers over social media. Additionally, we know that many patients have mobility problems: they might struggle to get out of bed or they might be reliant on a caregiver. The digital world offers them a way to retain their independence. So, in the spirit of my admiration for the NHS (and yours too, I hope), I thought I would take a leaf out of its book and explore other great examples in which the stakeholder has been at the centre of a digital innovation, along with what healthcare companies can learn from these initiatives.

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