Winter is a challenging time for healthcare providers around the world. Each year, the cold weather brings with it a decline in population health owing to the higher prevalence of seasonal illnesses like norovirus, ‘flu, asthma and more recently, COVID-19. The combined effect is a high demand for healthcare services, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable. Increased staff sickness at this time of year further adds to the pressure faced by hospitals and healthcare facilities. Although the widespread global vaccination programme has meant that the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, healthcare systems throughout the world are still experiencing unprecedented staff sickness levels, not just as a result of direct infection from COVID-19, but as a consequence of staff burnout resulting from longer shifts, increased workloads and the cumulative pressures of the past two years.
Planning for winter pressures is a priority for all acute, frontline, mental health, ambulance and community services. NHS England’s plan for increasing capacity and operational resilience to relieve winter pressures acknowledges the challenges the system is already under, and key performance metrics reveal that areas such as patient flow, handover times and delayed discharges require substantial improvement in order to alleviate pressure on already strained services. The ability of trusts to maintain patient flow and discharge patients to more appropriate facilities – or home – is paramount. According to figures from NHS England, every day throughout December there have been as many as 13,000 patients taking up beds in acute hospitals who did not need to be there, an increase of more than 25% on last year.
There is no doubt that the ongoing pandemic continues to significantly affect the ability to deliver effective healthcare services. Coupled with winter pressures, healthcare services are dangerously understaffed and under equipped to face the challenges ahead. The question is, what can be done?
Primarily, healthcare facilities need to implement effective strategies to prioritise care for the most critically ill patients. This will inevitably involve a range of temporary solutions such as suspending non-essential services during the winter period, implementing triage systems to speed up processing, and relying more heavily on external services and private providers to prop up existing provision. Initiatives like the NHS Falls Response Team, funding for increased bed capacity and special hubs for dealing with respiratory illnesses will also go some way to relieving pressures.
However, more robust, longer-term solutions are needed in order for the healthcare sector to manage winter pressures in a more sustainable, economically viable way. One of the ways in which this is already happening is the digital health revolution.
Breakthroughs in digital health are taking place every day which are not only promoting more autonomous, patient-centred care but are also helping healthcare providers throughout the world to focus on value-based care. The healthcare sector has an opportunity to increase its reliance on digital services and big data in order to improve quality whilst ensuring that overstretched services are delivered in a more targeted, efficient and ultimately, economical way.
The potential for the digital transformation of health systems is far-reaching, and encompasses developments ranging from wearable devices and telemedicine, to the digitisation of health records, AI-enabled healthcare decision-making, workforce planning dashboards and the digitisation of diagnostic services such as radiology and pathology. The efficiency gains generated by these developments is enabling healthcare services to shift some of their reliance from staff over to digitally-enabled solutions which can operate just as with reduced manpower.
Crucially, advanced analytics solutions are also now in place in many areas to support primary healthcare services with the management of patient flow; enabling providers to speed up discharges and ensure that more critical care beds are available when they’re needed.
Promising digital and technological developments are constantly being made – and adopted – in the healthcare sector, however there is still work to be done. In the meantime, it’s essential for healthcare providers to fulfil their responsibility to their workforce – particularly during times of additional pressure such as the winter months – and ensure that staff are provided with appropriate resources and support to help manage stress and avoid burnout.
At Tektology, we are committed to the shared goal of helping healthcare organisations to build-in advanced digital solutions which will enable them to thrive in the long term. We work with the best and brightest minds in the digital health arena, bringing their expertise and passion to our clients: using digital innovation to contribute to the digital transformation of health systems and life sciences organisations globally.