Foundations for a better digital future

The What Good Looks Like framework for good digital practice published by NHSX highlights the importance of board-level leadership and ownership of digital transformation. Building on established good practice, the framework lays out seven measures of success, applicable to all care settings. Trust CEO Samantha Allen explores some of the measures of success in the context of leadership, and how the framework helps leaders set out solid foundations to develop their organisation's digital strategy.

Digital transformation has been one of the defining features of our pandemic experience. Whilst we’ve all experienced virtual meeting fatigue, a lot of positives have come from this.

At Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, we’ve achieved about three years’ worth of digital transformation in the space of 12 months. This has enabled us to deliver around 100k online consultations to support people with mental health problems in their own homes. It’s helped us really embrace flexible working and generated huge environmental benefits (as well as financial savings) by enabling people to work remotely, rather than having to drive long distances to face-to-face meetings.

The Learning for the Future project we have undertaken throughout the pandemic has captured "live learning" from this experience. As part of the project, we’re about to publish the outcome of patient experience research looking at this use of digital technology through the lens of people who use our services.

The challenge ahead is to continue harnessing the potential power of technology to transform treatment, whilst recognising this approach isn’t right for everyone. Many people need face-to-face support from their clinical team. Some people feel less comfortable than others in using technology. Indeed, the NHS Confederation’s guide to digital inclusion in mental health underlines the risk of existing health inequalities - avoidable, unfair and systematic differences in health between different groups of people - being exacerbated by a growing divide between those who have digital skills and confidence and those who don’t. The pandemic has really highlighted the importance of digital inclusion for all

A further challenge is to remain future focused in anticipating how we can harness digital to deliver further improvement to patient care and offer more choice.

In doing so, it’s vital to avoid becoming too distracted by the art of the possible. New technology affords tremendous opportunities. The key to harnessing this potential is to be crystal clear about what you are trying to achieve and why. Otherwise, you leave yourself exposed to the organisational risk of being seduced by shiny new technology and at the mercy of digital marketeers. A digital driven strategy involves harnessing technology to deliver your goals, rather than adapting your goals according to what technology may allow you to do.

The What Good Looks Like framework sets out solid foundations which organisations can use to develop their digital strategy. What I like about the guidance is the way it sets out some of the practical steps necessary to build a better digital future.

Vision, bold ambition and creativity are, of course, vital. That said, it’s really important to make sure you have the basic scaffolding in place on issues like data leadership expertise, network infrastructure and governance.

We also need to bottle what it is that enabled us to accelerate our digital transformation plans at such pace during the pandemic. Yes, it’s true we did so because we had to. At the same time, the focus, clarity of purpose and collective endeavour on display during COVID-19 are positive attributes that will serve us well for the future if we can put our learning in to practice and integrate digital in how we meet the health needs of our communities and the way we work. Doing so will enable us to take digital transformation to the next level and this will be part of a sustainable NHS

One of the steps we took at Sussex Partnership was to establish a Board level Chief Digital and Information Officer (which, at the time of doing so, made us one of only a handful of NHS organisations who had gone down this route). This has provided invaluable in helping ensuring our board level discussions are framed by strategic digital thinking and insights. Rather than digital being seen as "something that happens in IT", it is an essential enabler in achieving our vision to improve the quality of life for the communities we serve through our strategy - people, prevention and partnerships.