By Paul Davison, Executive Director of IT, Terry Huff, Productivity Lead, and Sam McCarthy, Associate Director of IT Service Delivery
Opportunities exist for Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) and individual providers to improve operational efficiency and reduce costs by commissioning and delivering IT services and equipment at scale. This is not about delivering a ‘quick win’ – there are plenty of challenges to address – but it does have the potential to deliver significant financial savings, as well as facilitating a more integrated way of working across system partners. Achieving change in an area which underpins so many aspects of how each organisation functions is inevitably complex, but by taking a leaf out of our clinical colleagues’ book and adopting a multidisciplinary team approach, this is an opportunity the NHS cannot afford to miss.
The case for IT at scale
Healthcare IT support includes hardware and software purchasing and maintenance, cyber security, telephone systems and service desk provision. This can be for users delivering patient-facing care as well as corporate services including HR, finance and communications. It’s the critical infrastructure that allows every part of the NHS to operate. Although each provider will have its own approach, there are a lot of similarities in the type of IT equipment and services different organisations use, and the potential benefits of bringing some of this together are huge.
As with any at scale solution, financial and operational efficiencies are big drivers, particularly considering workforce pressures. Cyber security is a good example of where increased joint working could improve resilience. The threats posed by cyberattacks are rapidly becoming more prevalent and sophisticated. Protecting NHS infrastructure from attack is demanding, time consuming and constantly evolving. Working in organisational silos means much of this work is duplicated and opportunities to share best practice are limited.
Bulk purchasing and improved supplier and contract management also brings both cost savings and time efficiencies. Pooling purchasing for new kit and software licences not only helps drive better prices, but also simplifies procurement, contract management and renewal. At-scale procurements can realistically deliver cost savings of 10-15% on widely used IT hardware and bring other supply chain benefits, like improved relationships with key suppliers. In a recent project commissioned by Joined Up Derbyshire ICB, for example, we used data provided by each trust to identify common purchases and recommend opportunities for joint purchasing to drive a better deal and free up resources.
Furthermore, at scale IT service desks and contact centres can help to drive improvement in efficiency, quality, and workforce. Collaboration can enable providers to build more resilient teams rather than competing against each other to attract limited specialist staff.
IT and digital transformation are among the fastest growing areas in the NHS and considered to be critical enablers to improving access to healthcare as well as providing more sustainable, cost effective services. Thanks to advances in technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence, scope for enhancing services and improving ways of working is on the rise.
Many organisations are now starting to develop and use robotic process automation (RPA) to improve accuracy and minimise staff time spent on manual repetitive tasks, such as reporting. Developing the initial concept takes time but done at scale, the benefits can be quickly shared across a wider footprint. Arden & GEM provides IT support in Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire. We recently developed an RPA-based solution to manage IT requirements for new joiners and leavers which is being deployed across these systems This has freed up resources to work on other critical tasks, while improving the speed and efficiency of onboarding for new staff. By working at scale, the total time invested in developing new RPA solutions is reduced and the benefits more widely shared.
But it’s not just back office functions that set to benefit from at scale innovation. Advanced use of IT is helping to tackle capacity pressures for ambulance services and A&E departments using automated data flows. We’re currently working with Mid and South Essex ICB on a project that has, for the first time, developed a live dashboard that not only shows bed usage from hospital settings but also includes community and local authority beds, providing a single view across the health and care system to support discharge processes and improve resource allocation.
We are also exploring how ambulance services could adopt the same integrated planning platform and predictive modelling tools to better allocate resources, in real time, to optimise use of ambulance provision and reduce waiting times for patients. Developing this expertise will allow other providers and systems to benefit through shared learning and best practice.
Addressing barriers to change
Developing at scale IT solutions is not simply a matter of making practical changes to how services are purchased or supported, however. It requires organisational change to build trusted relationships and share risk, as well as the capacity to deliver and support large scale change. Each provider has its own way of doing things and may be reluctant to try something new, particularly given the fundamental role IT plays across each organisation. This challenge is not unique to IT but applies to many aspects of partnership working. As our Head of Organisational Development identified in his article on ICB leadership and culture, it requires unlearning deep-rooted ways of working and being prepared to move away from your own organisation’s approach in order to work collaboratively with ICS partners to achieve more.
This is why approaching IT at scale needs a multidisciplinary team approach – and CSUs need to rise to the challenge. To achieve the most ambitious benefits requires organisational development, change management and procurement expertise alongside IT and digital skills – not to mention capacity. With the breadth of services we provide, Arden & GEM is ideally placed to support the design, delivery and ongoing implementation of at scale IT programmes, drawing on learning from our work in primary and secondary care across the country.
With such broad potential benefits, it can be difficult to know where to start, particularly when teams are already stretched. In our experience, finding some practical, smaller-scale projects, such as identifying common purchasing requirements across providers, or auditing existing kit and licences, as well as defining internal and partner or supplier capacity to support joint projects can be a good way to begin. But the biggest gains will come from taking a more strategic approach across providers, to enable your system to fully benefit from advances in IT.
To find out more about how Arden & GEM can support you in delivering IT at scale, get in touch here.