How the NHS is innovating as part of its fight against coronavirus

Head shot of Tara Donnelly

Across the NHS and social care, digital technology is being embraced as never before as part of the response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Last week over 75 percent of all GP practices in England ran video consultations with at least some of their patients - this compares to under ten percent prior to the COVID outbreak. And over the past three weeks well over 50,000 people saw their hospital doctor via video. This has happened at an incredible pace, and for the vast majority of patients this is the first time they’ve had a clinical consultation in this way. The overwhelming feedback is positive from staff and patients, who are impressed at the value a virtual face-to face meeting provides over a phone call, and how effective it is for maintaining social isolation and reducing environmental impact. It’s also supporting the many self-isolating clinicians running NHS services from home - something that would have been hard to imagine a few short months ago. 

It is amazing that up and down the country staff across the NHS are thinking so innovatively about how to make remote care work as well as possible. From midwives providing breastfeeding support to new mums at home, to GPs managing elderly people shielding with long term conditions, to physiotherapists demonstrating rehabilitation exercises after a heart attack, and consultants giving specialist advice. Despite the global pandemic the NHS keeps going - albeit in very new ways.  

There has been fantastically helpful advice on conducting remote consultations from a range of sources, with a particular shout out to Professor Trish Greenhalgh and the Health Foundation for creating resources including Video consultations: how to set them up well, fast. Last week Professor Greenhalgh also joined Dr Minal Bakhai, NHS England and NHS Improvement’s national clinical lead for Digital First Primary Care, and NHSX colleagues, to present a webinar with the Digital Health Network titled video consultations in COVID-19

Over 99 percent of GP practices now have a video consultation provider sourced from the Dynamic Purchase Service Framework or the Digital Care Services Framework

NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups are advancing a number of well-evidenced digital solutions to help tackle this pandemic, with a particular focus on supporting people to stay at home and advancing solutions that save clinical staff time. These include:

  • shift booking platforms for staff
  • texting and mass messaging tools
  • digital outpatient booking systems
  • advice and guidance services
  • remote care platforms for physical and mental health
  • patient portals and other routes to get results and home-based testing
  • clinical communications tools 
  • videos for patient information
  • desktop virtualisation and 
  • using devices to connect patients, such as our work with Facebook to pilot Portals in care homes, connecting residents with their loved ones

There has been a major focus across the service on getting kit such as laptops and VPN tools to clinicians and other NHS staff working from home, keeping the NHS going in new ways. With staff working incredibly hard in response to the outbreak, we are focused on enabling them to make the most of the clinical time. 

Training has also changed with Health Education England’s e-Learning for Healthcare seeing record volumes with the team rapidly developing a COVID-19 e-learning programme that has been made available to all health and care professionals in the UK. Since launching last month, it has been viewed more than 650,000 times. The e-LfH content has also been made available, via eIntegrity, free of charge to health and care professionals working throughout the world and is being used in 79 countries to date. 

Innovations for remote meetings across health and care

As well as the huge expansion of online and video consultations, staff have been using video conferencing instead of physical meetings. Microsoft Teams is available to all NHS and care staff either by using their NHSmail account or by extending their organisation’s Microsoft Office licenses, and this has been deployed at significant pace. To date there have been over 160,000 activated user accounts, 348,000 calls held and over 4.7 million chat messages. 

And there are some excellent private sector providers offering their services to the NHS and Care sectors, many of them led and developed by clinicians.  

Providing a platform for SME innovation  

NHS login has seen a significant growth in numbers of users and the services it supports over recent weeks. It has over a million registered users and is now available as an identity verification service for a wide range of innovative digital health products provided by Co-op Health, eConsult, eRedbook, eRS, Evergreen Life, Leeds Helm, Airmid-TPP, Patients Know Best, Substrakt, AccuRx, Echo (by Lloyds Pharmacy) and Shaping Cloud, with more in the pipeline.

This work is being undertaken in partnership across all parts of the NHS and social care, and with innovators of all types - from academia, industry, and the voluntary sector - which is really refreshing and invigorating. We are grateful for all the help and offers being received, demonstrating how digital health innovators are rising to the challenge and helping many more people during the current outbreak.