Reflections from the UK Digital Health Summer School 2020

An event like no other!

The recent Digital Health Summer School was different this year – and not just in the obvious way.  As dictated by current COVID-19 restrictions, it was an online, digital event. This worked very well in terms of the quality and quantity of information that was able to be shared with delegates, but the traditional networking opportunities were missing.

Another difference I observed was the diversity of the attendees. When I attended my first DH Summer School a few years ago, the presenters and delegates were overwhelmingly white and middle-aged men. While there is nothing wrong with being a white, middle-aged male (speaking as almost one myself!), it certainly isn’t representative of the NHS/and my clinical colleagues, nor should it be within Health IT. This year I’m pleased to report the complexion of presenters and delegates alike was much more mixed, and a far better reflection of our health care and technology innovators.

Chaos, Culture and COVID – but not necessarily in that order

There was a diverse selection of speakers – the Rising Stars were particularly impressive - from both private and NHS sectors, and some from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Professor Keith McNeil, CCIO at Queensland Health, gave a fascinating presentation about complexity and chaos theory, advocating that change may seem scary and uncontrollable (like chaos), but, in fact, it’s just very complex, and mostly like can be predicted.  

As you would expect, COVID, and how to prepare for the second wave, was mentioned by almost every speaker. It is the single biggest crisis that most healthcare organisations worldwide have had to face in recent years. One speaker likened the preparations for COVID to implementing a new EPR: everyone is going to have to work differently and the implications of getting it wrong are huge.

The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for a change in culture. Where once people couldn’t conceive the idea of working remotely, with tele-consultations, it happened almost overnight. Technology has been adopted, at pace, and changed the healthcare sector forever, mostly for the better. People have been empowered to make decisions, simply to get the job done, and ask questions afterwards.  The key questions now seem to be:

  • What have we learnt during the mobilisation to meet the challenge of COVID?
  • How can these lessons be applied going forward?

People and Processes first

Without doubt, people and processes are key to delivering patient care, and the technology must support that. Change is required, but it needs to be strategically managed, with voices from across the healthcare workforce spectrum, including those on the frontline, being part of the decision-making process. If a technology doesn’t support the delivery of care, no matter how much you’ve emotionally invested in it, it needs to be changed, or dropped and move on. Overwhelmingly, the feeling is that people are more important than the technology, with a focus on processes.

There was a lot of talk about changing culture, and talk too of how leadership can bottle the ‘Can Do’ attitude as people in all areas of healthcare stepped up and went above and beyond. There was also much discussion about looking after our people, who are now tired and fatigued. You only remain ‘agile’ for so long before you need a rest.

Leadership, change, and visibility

I also observed a meaningful change in culture at this year’s event. Several of the speakers remarked on how leadership should be allowed to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them. The same speakers talked about embracing change, promoting diversity, and listening to voices from across the healthcare spectrum. Nurses, after all, are the ones that deliver a significant amount of care and use the technology. This is brave talk because, let’s be honest, this is a cultural progression which is currently in its infancy.

Underpinning all of this is data visibility: fast access to data to provide treatment, track and trace data to prevent infection, and patient data held in one place where all can see it (who need to). Greater access to data provides greater visibility because you have the ability to analyse that data, to see trends, look at what worked, what went wrong, learn from it, and apply those lessons.  A data-driven approach is evidence-based and will help healthcare organisations to apply strategy even-handedly and fairly, and avoid the pitfalls of local ‘hobby horses’.

Digital Transformation – are we there yet?

COVID-19 has brought digital transformation and the uptake of technology into sharp focus. The key themes from the DH Summer School were:

  • People and processes are key, tech just supports this
  • Tech that enables patient care is the priority
  • Learning from experience, being allowed to fail will take us forward
  • More voices and decision makers from across healthcare, not just IT
  • Looking after each other – make time for rest and reflection
  • Leadership needs to lead a change in culture

What we’ve seen is a potent mix – a crisis, rapid adoption of some technology, and a new ‘Can Do’ attitude. All of this has led to a groundswell of feeling and a questioning of how we can change our culture. How we can embrace change, be more inclusive, learn from mistakes and apply that learning for the benefit of all?

We’re looking at challenging times ahead, but also exciting times for the healthcare industry and everyone that works in it, and is treated by it – that’ll be all of us then!