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The mix of IT systems in the NHS is a barrier to digital transformation, say doctors

by Beth Gault
7 December 2022

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Almost 80% of doctors think the number of different IT systems used within the NHS is a significant barrier to digital transformation, according to a BMA survey.

The research, called Getting IT right: A prescription for safe, modern healthcare, looked at the digital infrastructure in the NHS across both primary and secondary care, and found that doctors believe funding, current software and hardware also pose significant problems. 

The BMA estimated that around 13.5 million working hours are lost annually in England due to inadequate IT systems and equipment in the NHS, with just 11% of doctors saying they had ‘completely’ the necessary equipment to do their job.

Almost one in three doctors said the software they use was ‘rarely’ or ‘not at all’ adequate and fit for purpose for their job, with only under 4% suggesting the software was ‘completely’ adequate.

While almost two thirds of respondents (74.8%) said they had received training on the IT systems they use to deliver care, 32.5% said they needed or wanted more, with an additional 12.4% saying they had not received training and needed some.

Meanwhile, the survey also suggested that a lack of interoperability of systems within the NHS had an impact on patient care, with more than four in five doctors (82.4%) saying that delays occur ‘always’ or ‘very often’ in accessing patient data from secondary care.

Over 40% of doctors said they were not very confident and 27% not at all confident that they will be able to seamlessly and instantly share and access patient data throughout the NHS in 10 years’ time.

This comes amid ambitions from the Government to share patients’ health and care information across different parts of the NHS by 2024 in the form of shared care records.

Premises maintenance

Alongside the digital infrastructure report, the BMA also published an estates report called Brick by brick: The case for urgent investment in safe, modern and sustainable healthcare estates. This found that one in four GP practice premises are in a poor or very poor state.

It estimated that the maintenance backlog for estates was £10.2bn in England, with an additional £1.08bn for Scotland, £1.02bn in Wales and £1.24bn in Northern Ireland.

The report said that any nationally mandated increase in primary care staff must also come with funding for premises expansions and improvements.

It highlighted that many GP practices are not accessible for patients or staff, due to age, layout, design or the lack of necessary equipment, and recommended that funding be made available to ensure accessibility as standard.

Dr Latifa Patel, BMA representative body chair, said: ‘Alongside physical buildings, digital infrastructure is way behind where it should be for a modern health service that can meet the needs of patients and staff.

‘Doctors face daily battles with outdated systems that do not talk to one another, unreliable connections and crashing computers – that is if they can find a computer at all.

‘While this is frustrating for doctors, ultimately it takes them away from what they should be doing – which is providing direct care to patients. Within an understaffed healthcare system each delay is potentially putting someone at greater risk of harm.’

She added that the Government ‘lauds’ its commitments to digital transformation and data, but that without fixing the outdated infrastructure, these ambitions will not be realised.

‘Funding reliable, safe and secure technology is vital, and this goes hand-in-hand with the need to invest in robust and well-designed healthcare buildings. By doing neither, the Government risks further endangering patients and plunging staff further into despair,’ Dr Patel added.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘This government is investing record sums to upgrade and modernise NHS buildings so staff have the facilities needed to provide world-class care for patients, including £4 billion this year and £12 billion over the next three years.

‘We are also investing an initial £3.7 billion as part of the biggest hospital building programme in a generation, alongside delivering over 70 major hospital upgrades across England.’