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NHS IT issues costing doctors more than 13 million hours annually

Doctors warn that ageing IT infrastructure is impacting patient care and clinical outcomes

An NHS nurse wearing a face mask using a computer in a hospital corridor

NHS IT issues cost doctors millions of hours of work every year, according to a new study from the British Medical Association (BMA).

The Building the Future report, which draws on feedback from 1,300 BMA members, found that tech issues and ageing IT infrastructure hampers their ability to carry out their roles effectively.

Nearly one-third (29.8%) of doctors told the association that software used in daily operations is “’rarely’ or ‘not at all’ sufficient. Meanwhile, just 4% said that software suits their needs and is appropriate to their role.

Similarly, the study found that only 11% of medical practitioners reported ‘completely’ having the necessary equipment to perform their role.

Lack of interoperability

The interoperability of IT software and hardware was identified as a “significant barrier” to digital transformation across the health service, with 76% of respondents highlighting this particular issue.

Just over two-thirds (68%) of doctors said they were ‘not very confident’ or ‘not confident at all’ that seamless data sharing across the service could be achieved within the next decade.

This lack of interoperability means that patients report a “disjointed experience” in navigating certain aspects of the health service, with many being forced to report the same information to multiple different clinicians.

This has had a marked impact on the “quality, timeliness and safety” of the care patients receive, the report warned.

One respondent said that working across different IT systems limits their ability to access records, which poses a “significant risk” to patients and impacts clinical outcomes.

Sub-par hardware is increasing workloads

Responding to the BMA’s January 2022 Viewpoint Survey, nearly 71% of doctors reported that current IT systems and infrastructure in their workplace ‘somewhat’ or ‘significantly’ increased their workload.

This latest survey found that more than half (58%) of doctors reported losing between one and three hours per week due to inefficient equipment, which is causing a significant hit to productivity each year and exacerbating backlogs.

“The BMA estimates that this means more than 13.5 million working hours are lost yearly in England alone due to delays as a result of inadequate or malfunctioning IT systems and equipment,” the report claimed.

“This is the equivalent to almost 8,000 full time doctors, or nearly £1 billion,” it added.

Poor connectivity and broadband speeds

Connectivity and access to high-speed broadband were also identified as key barriers for healthcare practitioners working on the frontline of the NHS.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for improved connectivity at a time of increased remote patient care and consultations. However, poor connectivity was revealed to be “one of the biggest barriers” to carrying out remote consultations.

A separate survey conducted by the BMA in 2020, 11% of doctors said poor connectivity was ‘significantly’ or ‘slightly limiting’ their ability to perform their role and provide remote consultations.

Calls for increased investment

The BMA has now called for increased investment in digital solutions and has recommended a stronger focus on bringing the health service’s IT infrastructure up to modern, efficient standards.

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“Digital solutions have the potential to transform healthcare in the UK, but many doctors have told us about the IT challenges they face in their day-to-day working lives,” the BMA said.

“High quality patient information, fully functioning technology, and interoperable systems can improve patient care, access, experience, increase productivity and transform the working lives of healthcare staff,” the association added.

The BMA outlined replacing or upgrading outdated and defective hardware and software as a priority moving forward. In addition, it called for improvements to broadband capabilities in healthcare facilities across the UK to increase connectivity.

Other key recommendations include:

  • Improving interoperability to facilitate data sharing across health care systems, particularly the primary-secondary care interface, and develop robust standards for interoperability by the appropriate UK health service regulatory bodies
  • Ensuring robust cyber security measures are in place nationally and locally to protect health information systems and mitigate against widespread disruption to patient care
  • Closely involve users of digital systems on the design and implementation of digital programmes and strategies

Embedding digital skills in medication education and training curriculums was also identified as a key recommended focus for the NHS.

This, the report said, would enable doctors to continue up-skilling themselves “over the course of their careers” through a combination of in-house training and continuing professional development.

Budget Cuts

The BMA report raises questions over how the NHS can seek to enhance and modernise IT infrastructure amidst a period of budgetary restraints and cutbacks.

According to the association, current assessment methods for IT funding are “challenging” while funding streams are often “complex”.

In addition, the report noted that recent government investment in digital transformation in the English NHS has “not been sufficient to deliver national ambitions and historical investment in IT has been inconsistent”.

Research conducted by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2020 found that NHS trusts in England spend less on IT and technology than the recommended level.

The report revealed that less than 2% of trusts’ expenditure is on technology, compared with a recommended 5%.

NHS trusts told the NAO that funding was a major barrier, “since they face many demands for local resources".

“This suggests that additional central funding alongside expanded local funding is desperately needed to reach digitisation and transformation ambitions,” the BMA stated. “But trusts may not have the luxury of flexibility with their spending and may have to prioritise direct patient care over infrastructure upgrades.”

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