COMMENT: How hospitals can prepare for the next challenges of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated change in NHS hospitals, and healthcare staff must embrace it to deal with the challenges still to come, warns Tim Weil, chief executive of Navenio

Technology has a major part to play in easing the NHS backlog created by the coronavirus pandemic, says Tim Weil of Navenio

It’s becoming an increasingly-common refrain that COVID-19 has less ‘changed everything’ and more driven forward changes which were, until now, slowly starting to have an impact on a wide range of sectors.

In retail, sales have been driven, by necessity, online. And how many customers, having experienced this way of purchasing goods, will return to an in-store model?

The Government, as well as individual NHS trusts, needs to keep its foot on the pedal to introduce an overhaul of previously-inefficient services; not just as part of a ‘five-year plan’ or long-term efficiency drive, but to save lives in the here and now

Healthcare is facing long-term changes in a short space of time, too.

It has naturally been one of the hardest-hit areas of our lives during this pandemic, with the surge of patients suffering from the symptoms of the coronavirus threatening to overwhelm health systems around the world.

In some areas, sadly, it has done so. And, in others, there has been a remarkable and admirable effort to build new hospitals in a matter of days, recruit vast numbers of new and recently-retired staff, and find funding for services which were previously fighting for resources.

Many of the logistical issues which hamper the NHS have been addressed almost overnight.

But the passing of the peak of infections doesn’t mean an end to the need for change.

The Government, as well as individual NHS trusts, needs to keep its foot on the pedal to introduce an overhaul of previously-inefficient services; not just as part of a ‘five-year plan’ or long-term efficiency drive, but to save lives in the here and now.

The second wave

Consider the number of patients who have been staying away from hospitals despite needing operations.

Being classified as ‘non-urgent’ doesn’t mean that these procedures don’t need to happen. Some cancer treatments, for example, fall into this category.

Even urgent cases have been staying away, with 40% fewer A&E attendances due to heart attacks recorded since the UK’s lockdown came into effect.

As Simon Jenkins noted in New Statesman recently: “In the case of a pandemic, we expect government to soberly measure the human risk of more virus deaths today against the certainty of enormous costs – and collateral deaths – enforced on the nation by prolonged lockdown.

“On 29 April cancer experts predicted 18,000 extra deaths in the UK from untreated cancers alone.”

So the NHS has little choice but to ready itself for a rapid influx of patients with delayed care needs.

Technology has its part to play in helping ease the logjam, and once again, we can look to different sectors to get a sense of how software might best be used to benefit patients and staff

By some estimates, there are up to seven million operations that the NHS will need to at least attempt to carry out over the next six months.

In any system, approaching such a large amount would require pinpoint efficiency; and in the NHS urgent action is required.

One of the most-important areas, therefore, which needs to be improved to the best it possibly can be is hospital logistics.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust has been running a fully-integrated, virtual consultant-delivered triaging service

Lessons we can learn

The logistical challenges of running a hospital are normally only briefly glimpsed by the general public in their hopefully-infrequent visits.

A few years ago my daughter injured her ankle in a freak accident and required surgery.

In her case it was vital to operate quickly before swelling set in, which would necessitate a longer stay in hospital.

Unfortunately, when the time came for her surgery, she was having a non-urgent scan on the other side of the hospital.

Cue a week-long stay instead of a couple of days before surgery could be carried out, and all due to simply not knowing where she was.

Attempting to track down a family member to the right ward, finding out what time a surgery is going to be, knowing when you’ll be able to take an elderly parent or sick child home; at least one of these is probably familiar to every reader.

Long-term plans have become short-term necessities for hospitals and healthcare teams across all countries

Of course, the issues are more deeply ingrained than this.

What might be frustrating for a parent who finds themself in the wrong ward, can cost a huge amount of time and money if a patient isn’t ready for surgery at their appointed time because they’re off for another scan in a different part of the hospital.

More seriously, logistical breakdowns can be life-threatening; for a patient due to occupy a bed in a ward which hasn’t yet been disinfected by cleaning staff, for example; or for a doctor who doesn’t receive their store of PPE in a timely fashion.

Technology has its part to play in helping ease this logjam, and once again, we can look to different sectors to get a sense of how software might best be used to benefit patients and staff.

Ride-hailing apps, for example, use location-based technology to assign a user to the driver best suited to pick them up, based on where they are.

In a hospital setting, something similar can be done with indoor location-based Apps which allocate tasks to porters and cleaners based on giving tasks to the best-qualified nearby staff member, instead of waiting on one person to trek over from the other side of the hospital.

This has to be done with respect to people’s data privacy, of course.

Virtual services and Artificial Intelligence (AI) too, will come to play an increasingly-significant role in healthcare.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, as an example, has been running a fully-integrated, virtual consultant-delivered triaging service.

As we all prepare for the next stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals must adopt the change that has been thrust upon them and continue to adapt and innovate to help mitigate the impact of the next wave of patients

AI can also help to identify and prioritise patients for immediate treatment by rapid analysis of symptoms – especially through basic and easily-implemented systems such as chatbots, which through a few pre-programmed questions can help people determine whether they need to visit hospital in the first place.

Beating the backlog

Long-term plans have become short-term necessities for hospitals and healthcare teams across all countries.

And as we all prepare for the next stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals must adopt the change that has been thrust upon them and continue to adapt and innovate to help mitigate the impact of the next wave of patients.

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