UK’s NHS turns digital as COVID-19 strikes

The UK has been one of the countries that has been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has turned to innovative health digital solutions to find its way out of the crisis. The Sidebar takes a closer look and explores the impact on the country’s healthcare system. 

As the UK faces one of the highest death rates from the coronavirus, its taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS) has performed above expectations.

The field hospitals hastily put up in convention centers around the country have hardly been used as the rest of the health system quickly adapted to meet the changing healthcare demands.

When it comes to digital health, necessity has been the mother of invention. The need for doctors to assess patients remotely to reduce the likelihood of infection has seen an increased use of digital technology. In Iceland, Sidekick adopted its digital care platform to support and monitor people diagnosed with COVID-19 in home isolation and across the world the pandemic has triggered innovation at record speeds.

 

Image: Sidekick rolled out it’s remote care platform nationwide.

 

But in the UK, the first starting place has been the NHS App, which allows patients to access services using their smartphone or tablet.

In March 2020 when the country’s lockdown measures came into effect, registrations to use the app increased by 111%, the number of repeat prescription requests increased by 97%.

The number of patient record views rose by 62%, according to figures provided by the health and social care information center NHS Digital.

It found the NHS Pathways software system was responsible for triaging more than 1.6 million calls to 111 and 999, to direct them to the most appropriate service available. This was a 12.2% increase from the same time last year.

So digital technology and triaging is already playing an important role in triaging patients at a time when the NHS needs to make the most of its available resources.

It’s also common for GP surgeries to use mobile phone technology as a tool to remotely diagnose patients where possible.

But the pandemic is also having a far wider impact on society because of the widespread lockdowns that are being used to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading.

With many people housebound, and children unable to attend school, there are worries about the mental health effects of the pandemic.

With this in mind the devolved NHS administration in Scotland has made two accredited apps available to patients to help them deal with issues such as anxiety or loss of sleep.

The apps are on offer as part of a national wellbeing hub and have functions designed to help maintain healthy and restorative sleep and reduce anxiety and worry.

Staff can also learn evidence-based techniques to address mental health issues when they arise, according to Scotland’s political magazine Holyrood.

The NHS has also produced an “app library,” which contains products that are checked for quality before inclusion.

In the same way that Google and Apple vet all apps before they are included on their download platforms, the NHS has ensured that people get access to good quality digital care solutions to help them during the pandemic.

At the start of April there were 86 apps in the library, with mental health being the largest category with 13 entries.

A track and trace app

But at the heart of the NHS response to the pandemic is another digital solution: an app that will allow the disease to be tracked and traced as it is transmitted.

The concept is still in development at the time of writing but relies on a similar principle to systems already used in South Korea and Australia.

Once downloaded on the phone, people can enter their COVID-19 status into the app. Using Bluetooth, the app notifies anyone who comes into contact with an infected person for more than 15 minutes, if they are using the app too.

The anonymous and encrypted system allows people at risk of infection to take action and will be a powerful tool when combined with a new testing regime that is being phased in over the next few months.

There have been teething problems with the pilot version of the app, which was tested on the Isle of Wight.

Aside from technical issues with the app itself, the UK government has opted to use a centralized system to store the data from each phone.

This differs from apps developed by Google and Apple, which only store data on an individual’s phone.

There are advantages to both systems – the UK system allows the NHS to track how the disease is spreading using the data stored in the centralized system.

But this is also a security nightmare and there are already concerns about the possibility of the system being hacked.

There are also worries that people could deliberately identify themselves as being “infected” just to prank other users.

While the Google and Apple system sidesteps the problem of security, its decentralized approach means the system cannot be used to track the spread of the disease.

This will be important, as UK prime minister Boris Johnson wants to implement a system of regional lockdowns to prevent the disease catching on again in hotspots, while allowing other towns and cities to continue with normal daily life.

While the teething issues with the app have pushed back its launch, digital solutions have allowed the NHS to keep operating during this difficult time.

And the hope is that digital technology will play a vitally important role in the track and trace operation that will help the country return to work and escape from a crippling recession.