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Wed, 21 October 2020

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Technology is key to relieving poor mental health among NHS workforce

Technology is key to relieving poor mental health among NHS workforce

Poor mental health is an invisible illness right at the heart of our health service, and it is clear that policymakers must do everything possible to tackle this menace, says VMware | Credit: PA Images

Duncan Greenwood, Vice President & General Manager NEMEA | VMware

5 min read Partner content

Providing strong and flexible digital foundations can play a critical role in supporting the mental wellbeing of our NHS staff.

Key workers in the NHS have been risking their lives every day fighting coronavirus. They face a challenge unparalleled in modern times.

Not just doctors and nurses but care workers, receptionists, cleaners and office staff. They are the centre around which our country has rallied in its time of crisis.

But the effort will have undoubtedly taken a mental toll.

In April this year the NHS set up a dedicated mental health hotline for staff struggling during the outbreak. Within three weeks it had received nearly 60,000 calls.

In a work environment already causing stress and burnout, there are clear concerns that the crisis could have lasting mental health effects.

Mental ill health can creep up on all of us at any point. The impact of this hidden disease can have long lasting impacts - for the individual, their family and wider society. When it impacts those who care for us, it impacts all of us.

That is why it is so concerning that according to a report published today, last year more than 10 million working days were lost to mental ill health in the NHS across the UK. Put another way, this is the equivalent to half of all NHS staff – 700,000 people – being quarantined for 14 days, or every worker taking on average 7 days off work a year.

In a work environment already causing stress and burnout, there are clear concerns that the crisis could have lasting mental health effects.

Unfortunately, given the emotional strain and increased workload caused by the pandemic, we can reasonably expect 2020’s figures to be even more significant. Poor mental health is an invisible illness right at the heart of our health service, and it is clear that policymakers must do everything possible to tackle this menace.

There are a number of things required to boost the mental wellbeing of our NHS workers. I am not qualified to talk about remuneration levels, workforce numbers, training programmes or a host of other big ticket questions that healthcare professionals and policymakers grapple with.

However, as someone who works with the public and private sector to support their digital transformation, I can talk about the positive role that technology can play in helping hospital trusts relieve some of the strain and stress that impacts those on the working in the NHS.

If every hospital in the UK had strong digital foundations, I believe this could play a role in improving the mental wellbeing of the NHS workforce.

Take log-on times as an example.

At the moment, in a typical hospital, staff need to log-in to as many as 15 different systems when tending to a patient. As well as the sheer amount of time this takes, the numerous log-ins require staff to remember multiple, complex passwords or more likely compromise security by reusing the same one in every system.

A single sign-on system could reduce time spent logging into systems radically. According to the Department of Health and Social Care, a single sign-on process introduced at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool saved more than 130 valuable hours a day.

If every hospital in the UK had strong digital foundations, I believe this could play a role in improving the mental wellbeing of the NHS workforce.

This wouldn’t just reduce stress in what has recently been an even more uncertain and demanding hospital environment, it would also allow clinicians more flexibility and allow the NHS workforce to focus on treating and caring for patients. If this was true before the coronavirus outbreak, it is even more the case now.

Encouragingly, many Trusts are already moving at pace in response to Covid-19; pushing forward with the digitisation needed to continue to provide vital healthcare and protect their workforce at a time of crisis.

For those Trusts already heading in this direction, positive steps need to be cemented and built upon. For others, support will be needed to ensure that they can catch up quickly with their more digitally advanced peers. A three-pronged approach would support this much-needed digital transformation:  expertise, money and accountability.

Firstly, expertise. Too often NHS Trust Boards lack the detailed understanding of technology needed to create and drive forward a digital vision. Ensuring that every board has a CIO (Chief Information Officer, or equivalently experienced individual) in place in the next four years must be a crucial first step.

Secondly, money. The Government should ringfence part of its increased NHS investment, and bring together other existing funds focussed on investment in digital transformation, to develop a single Smart Care Fund. This should be used to ensure that investment is available to all Trusts to both achieve the required digital maturity standards and ensure they develop a future-proofed and flexible digital foundation.

Thirdly, accountability. We need a system which holds Trusts to account for failing to achieve the right level of digital maturity. It is encouraging that the Secretary of State has committed to giving all providers clear standards that the CQC can assess them against. Given its importance, it is vital that this work takes place rapidly.

This three-pronged approach sets out a framework for how we can transform the health service to better serve its staff.

Tens of thousands of us will owe our lives to the NHS after this crisis is over, and more will be wondering how to give back.

Providing strong and flexible digital foundations can play a critical role in supporting the mental wellbeing of our NHS staff.

This will be a great start in providing more support for those who have risked everything to care for us in our hour of need.

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