Circle Health: Mark Withers on what technology can do for patients

Published: 11-Mar-2024

Mark Withers, Chief Information Officer from Circle Health, discusses how technology can improve patient safety, drive quality of care, deliver cost efficiencies, and transform both patients and colleagues experiences

Mark Withers, Chief Information Officer at Circle Health, shares his 20 years of experience in business and digital transformation programmes. 

Technology and the patient experience 

I am passionate about technology, but I am more focused on what technology can do for end users, customers and in our case patients.

The opportunity to improve patient safety, to drive quality of care, to transform both our patients and colleagues experience, to deliver cost efficiencies – these are all within the reach of our current programme.

I have absolutely no doubts that the quality of care delivered not just at Circle Health Group, but across the independent sector as whole, has dramatically transformed in the last ten years.

Circle alone now offers over 60 different clinical specialties and more than 500 different treatments. We treat almost 2 million patients a year.

The continued drive at Circle to give patients the access, flexibility and options they need to make informed decisions about their health, is greater than at any other time in living memory.

It is interesting to see many of the same challenges and pressures in this sector as I have seen prior to this in my career

However, in many ways the digital capability maturity of the healthcare sector is behind other sectors – I think that is particularly true when we consider the patient experience (as distinct from clinical care) which can be fragmented and sometimes difficult for the patient to navigate.

If we consider that a patient is likely to be in distress as they come to us for care, then we must ensure that the process and experience of engaging with Circle and moving through their journey back to health must be as easy and frictionless as possible.

Circle has developed a reputation as a disruptive innovator within the sector: from acquiring the largest player, BMI Healthcare, while still one of the smallest; to opening up live access to thousands of consultants’ diaries online in a unique sky-scanner style booking system, it is widely acknowledged that we have pushed boundaries for patients within the independent sector.

That innovative online booking system has enabled millions of patients to secure rapid appointments with top specialists at the click of a button - a first for the independent hospital sector.

As we look to the next stage of our vision for the organisation, the opportunity to transform our service offering with digital technology is enormous. It is perhaps the central reason why I joinedCircle, less than 18 months ago.

We must start with the end in mind

The strength of the digital vision both at Board and Executive level is refreshing – there is an absolute determination and clarity of thinking about how we move forward, supported by the necessary funding to get the job done.

So – to use a medical analogy - the patient has been assessed, the diagnosis is clear, how do we now proceed with the required course of treatment?

Well, it is interesting to see many of the same challenges and pressures in this sector as I have seen prior to this in my career.

The "customer interaction layer"

The first is that we must start with the end in mind. Back to that focus on patient experience – what is it that we are trying to achieve and how will we ensure that we enable a coherent, personalised experience, delivered via high-quality digital products?

We must start with clarity on the patient journeys we wish to enable and then build an underlying set of integrated and inter-operable capabilities that deliver the required experience.

A critical component of any Digital Transformation Programme is also the approach to data

We think of this as the ‘Customer Interaction Layer’, comprising all of the touchpoints for the end users of our service – both patients and our colleagues using the solutions to deliver service.

That must be underpinned with clarity on the end-state target architecture – in all reality, you seldom achieve the initially documented end-state, as change is inevitable within these multi-year programmes.

However, understanding where you are going, when you are converging on that target, where you are diverging from it and how that architecture therefore needs to evolve is key.

Approach to data 

A critical component of any Digital Transformation Programme is also the approach to data. This is another area, which requires significant focus. In simple terms, data is the fuel which allows you to effectively power your digital interactions.

An effective data strategy will enable informed decision making, unlock insights around patient safety and clinical care, drive customer understanding, generate operational efficiencies and power innovation.

To get it right, you must focus on data quality, analytics capabilities and landing a data-driven culture in your organisation – a complex and challenging ask, but a critical one.

There is then the small matter of delivering the solutions! Gone are the days where a multi-million-pound budget was handed to IT and a few years later a solution delivers, or frequently, does not.

The statistics around the failure of major IT projects are alarming – a third get cancelled, half do not deliver the expected benefits, the majority significantly exceed their initial budgets!

If you have those ingredients and I know we do as a sector, then let us combine them and transform what our patients can expect from their providers

We now work in a world where more agile approaches to project delivery prevail, and for good reason – the Standish Chaos Reports, perhaps the de facto authority on IT project success suggests agile projects are three times more likely to succeed than waterfall.

Getting the delivery approach right, focused on the delivery of incremental benefit, supported by strong sponsorship and effective governance is
fundamental to success.

In Circle, I have also found an incredibly complicated business with a distributed operational footprint and a complex set of stakeholders and user groups. Perhaps the biggest challenge we currently face, alongside building the solutions, is our ability to effectively land them within that business landscape.

We are working very closely with the senior management teams at all our sites in conjunction with the engagement and comms teams within HR, to ensure that we effectively address that business change challenge.

A clear digital vision 

So what is the trick to making this work? A clear digital vision for the business; an engaged senior team working as effective sponsors; a relentless focus on the patient experience; supported with a clear technology and data strategy; the right delivery model; and a clear plan to manage the business change challenges.

If you have those ingredients and I know we do as a sector, then let us combine them and transform what our patients can expect from their providers. To me, that is exactly what the doctor ordered.

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