Spectralink Interview: Outdated NHS technology hampers effective patient care

TelecomsTech (TT) spoke with Simon Watson (SW) from Spectralink, a global leader in wireless solutions, about NHS England’s recently announced £100m funding to modernise their “outdated” systems and improve patient care.

With a range of healthcare solutions, Spectralink is poised to offer clear insight into what aspects of the NHS needs to be updated in order to remove the barriers that prevent medical professionals from working efficiently in life or death situations.

TT: Spectralink made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request into the NHS which revealed the shocking statistic that two thirds of nurses and medical staff continue to rely on handwritten notes and corridor conversations to communicate vital patient information…

To my knowledge, here in the UK we are slightly “behind the curve” in terms of our medical technology – but why did the company feel the need to make this request?

SW: We wanted to get facts, as opposed to making assumptions. We have always focused very heavily in North America on increasing the productivity and efficiency of staff in hospitals.

There was a study which came out in 2013 by an organisation called Ponemon which researched how efficient doctors and nurses and staff were in hospitals in terms of “what are the disruptions to their clinical work which are created through inefficient working practices?”

The study indicated that, in the US, around about 45 minutes per person today was wasted on futile, mundane tasks of running backwards and forwards trying to find pieces of information that really they needed access to in order to treat patients efficiently.

Now when you look at the North American healthcare market - which is really a commercial operation - they are generally pretty efficient organisations… but even there it showed this waste of time.

If we extrapolate this out to the NHS; with the number of people employed there, and some educated guesses at salary ranges… that probably equates to about £1.1 billion/year in wasted efficiency.

So there are some fundamental things which are pointing to some very large numbers; which really should be addressed. The Freedom of Information Act, we started going in asking some questions about how technology is being used, what reliance staff still have on bits of paper and verbal transmission of key information… and it was really quite scary.

Two key statistics which came out of it;

  • 61% of nurses and staff were still using handwritten notes and verbal communication to share really critical patient details; medical notes, discharge instructions…
  • Only 34% were making use of electronic patient records to capture and share patient details.

The key fact that came out of that is information was only available on centralised workstations at the nursing point; so they weren’t available on mobile devices at the patient’s bedside. Again, this leads to a complete waste of time for nurses and doctors having to go back and forth to retrieve information.

TT: How do you think the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend will affect healthcare?

SW: You hit the nail on the head when you were saying we are a bit “behind the curve” in terms of healthcare technology within the NHS. Literally yesterday, in a partner meeting here in the States, we were talking about this because one of the huge waves we’ve seen of changing practices elsewhere is of this BYOD concept…

In the States, many hospitals are trying to find a way to use mobile devices; whether they’re phones, or tablets, or all kinds of other devices to give to nursing staff so they have more speedy and accurate access to information - right there at the patient’s bedside.

Our historic product range has been phone-like products that interface with the PDX and can allow you to send along alarms, alerts, and critical notifications straight to the handset. It’s absolutely fascinating that, as productive as the BYOD story is, I think it’s really starting to bring out all kinds of wrinkles in the issues of the technology…

For example, if you think of a hospital environment, they’re not nice, cosy, carpeted offices; they are generally hard, concrete, or plastic-coated floors…

Take your own mobile phone and drop it two or three times on a hard floor and those consumer devices are just not made for harsh industrialised environments. We make devices that are rated against dust and liquid protection and, in a hospital environment in particular, they constantly have to be cleaned by chemical products…

A report from Holland, and it’s amazing people didn’t pick up on this more quickly, shows the growing rate of consumer-grade smartphones in hospitals is leading to further contamination of bacteria and MRSA because the devices are not being cleaned properly, and nor are they made to be cleaned by these harsh chemicals in a medical environment.

Consumer-products sound great in theory, but in practice is very different.

TT: What are some of the key areas you think need to be targeted by this funding?

SW: We are focusing really on how to increase flow of critical information from the hospital-side to the nursing staff at the bedside.

There are hospitals now looking at video conferencing. The growth of video in healthcare is just phenomenal, and previously Spectralink was part of Polycom, so we have a lot of exposure to the different types of applications of technology within healthcare.

There are some fantastic case studies of how various NHS trusts have used video communications to rapidly increase the assessments of cases for cancer care – I know certainly there are a couple in London which have practices in place.

In Cumbria, it’s used to speed-up the rate in which they’re diagnosed as having had a stroke and therefore given urgent treatment within a very critical timeframe so that they can be in-and-out of hospital within two or three days with relatively little after-care needed…

This is opposed to a delayed treatment which can mean a much-longer time in hospital and possibly years of ongoing care.

It’s great that the NHS is finally making funds available to start investing in this productivity. You hear these horror stories of ambulances lining-up outside unable to get into the hospital; it clearly illustrates a fundamental lack of efficiency - that with some investment - could be turned around quickly.

TT: We can imagine that M2M will play a vital role in the future of healthcare – is this a view you share?

SW: I think it has to be. If you look outside of healthcare, so many industries are – not completely automated – but the level of automation and information flow is so dramatically improved in non-healthcare environments.

With the level of security available these days, with the quality of networks… all the infrastructure is there - it’s lack of funding that is at the base. We’re hoping with this new fund available it will really accelerate the level of technology available.

TT: Why do you think a modernisation of NHS’ systems has taken so long?

SW: I don’t know. Is it a lack of funds? Is it maybe a lack of resources to do it all properly? There are some very large system integrators that focus heavily on the NHS, and perhaps it’s on the internal organisation side there are simply not enough people to look at the demands which are coming at them from all parts.

Whether it’s patient care, patient safety, buildings and infrastructure, processes, targets that the government sets… it must be incredibly difficult for the people running these organisations to decide what the number one priorities are.

I suspect that for as long as governments set targets; people will put those at the top of their list, and something else has to be de-prioritised.

What do you think the NHS needs to focus on modernising with its £100m funding?

You can take a look at Spectralink’s range of solutions here.

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