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Workforce: New technology will not displace old funding issues

The prime minister may laud the benefits of IT in healthcare, but the NHS has more pressing needs

The prime minister may laud the benefits of IT in healthcare, but the NHS has more pressing needs

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We Were Promised Jetpacks is the name of a Scottish indie rock band. It also sums up nicely both the expectations vested in new technologies and the reality of what they deliver.

In May, prime minister Theresa May gave a speech lauding the benefits of new technology as the saviour of the cash-strapped NHS, suggesting that artificial intelligence, the development of ‘smart’ technologies, and computer algorithms that sift through medical records will leapfrog the NHS to a more efficient future.

Struggling with the basics

A more sober perspective came from the Queen’s Nursing Institute’s (QNI) Nursing in the Digital Age report, which highlighted a system struggling with tech basics. The survey of 534 community health professionals on which the report is based found that:

  • 67 differently named IT systems are currently being used in community healthcare.
  • 74% of the community nurses surveyed found IT systems a more reliable way of working compared with paper, but 29% were still working largely with paper based systems.
  • 41% of NHS trusts did not use telehealth systems.

The survey also identified barriers to IT being used effectively. These included poor connectivity, which meant nurses were spending time duplicating information as paper records were transferred onto systems back at base, and the multiplicity of IT suppliers, leading to the use of systems that were incompatible with one another.

So, a much less shiny reality than the future being painted by the prime minister. A week after promoting new technology, Mrs May was reminded by two think tanks of a more pressing problem – the underfunding of the NHS.

They estimate that every taxpayer is going to have to stump up about £2,000 a year to get NHS funding back on track.

New technology cannot displace an old truth: the NHS also needs funds and staff.

Further information

James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

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