Jeremy Hunt came to the Health and Care Innovation Expo 2016 in Manchester with big news. He announced ambitious plans to push the NHS into the digital age, heralding a world of virtual healthcare where patients can book appointments, order prescriptions, check symptoms and compare different providers from their smartphone.
Echoing ambitions outlined in his very first speech as Health Secretary, there are few in the NHS and wider healthcare sector who would not welcome this. Indeed, the plans would finally bring the NHS in line with other service providers, from transport operators to banks. It could improve patient experience and empower them to make more informed choices about their healthcare.
For patients, what's not to like? It will be more convenient, provide more information, enable greater involvement in care decisions and improve access to the latest treatments. At the touch of a button patients will be able to compare hospital ratings. As Mr Hunt said in Manchester:
"technology puts power in the hands of patients - a change that will put patients in the driving seat of their healthcare".
The ambition should be applauded. But we should remember that previous efforts to use technology to modernise how patients access health and care services have been derailed time and again. Look no further than the care.data programme, an admirable idea in theory which was undone by a combination of data protection concerns and lack of public buy-in.
The NHS is good at talking the right talk but history tells us there is a big gap between words and actions when it comes to the NHS' dreams of digital transformation. It is right to ask whether such an ambitious digital programme can be delivered by a large, risk-averse bureaucracy. Could the civil service have invented Google or TripAdvisor?
Undoubtedly similar problems that have undone previous efforts will confront these plans in the coming weeks and months. How will prescription data be handled securely? How will patient confidentiality be respected? Will patient search terms be made available to third party organisations?
If the obstacles can be overcome - and if it is implemented as planned - NHS.uk would transform how patients access services. But what about patient experience? Factors such as culture, compassion and cleanliness - how will we know the "technological revolution" is working for patients?
Successful digital services rely on user feedback, and the most successful have used feedback at their very heart. So should the NHS. Every day the public use online feedback to make lifestyle choices - from holidays and hotels to a new smartphone or a car. The most successful organisations use this feedback to improve and enhance - if there's a bug in a newly-launched device, online user feedback will rapidly help identify the problem and the organisation will fix it. NHS boards should do the same.
To truly succeed, real-time patient feedback should be the bedrock of Hunt's new digital NHS. It will provide meaningful feedback both to users and providers, enhancing patient choice and providing an early warning system for providers. This would be a way to really give patients power to make informed choices - for them to rate and review care, to see the experience (good, bad and ugly) of other patients and to combine this with useful information to empower real choice. The best way the NHS can embrace digital is to help patients avoid sub-standard NHS services, to let them use the experience of other patients so they can avoid underperforming hospitals.
Reviews can also offer the NHS the opportunity to identify areas where things can be done even better - making good care truly excellent. They highlight good practice and great care, highlighting what patients have liked, which can be shared among staff and learnt from across local health economies.
In some places this digital future is already beginning to emerge. A community hospital was aware that some of their patients were experiencing falls during the night - online reviews via iWantGreatCare revealed delays in staff answering call bells, causing patients to get out of bed; new processes are now in place which has reduced the number of falls. At another Trust, iWantGreatCare feedback on their maternity ward highlighted that new mothers found the night staff offered poor support with feeding; the team now rotates between day and night shifts to ensure they share skills and the best care is given at all times.
This doesn't just benefit patients, it also benefits the workforce. Those working in healthcare are doing so because they want to make a difference - the data is clear that across the NHS staff morale is improved when they are shown the difference they are making to their patients.
NHS.uk provides an opportunity for patients and providers and the NHS must continue to be ambitious and relentless in driving itself toward this kind of digital future. You only need to look at the opening words of the NHS constitution to see why: "The NHS belongs to the people". It is the patients who have to come first - and their feedback matters.
Dr Neil Bacon is the Founder and Chief Executive of iWantGreatCare
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