Scotland prepares to fast-track digital health platform to help tackle coronavirus
Even before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it was already clear this was no longer a virus “happening somewhere else”. The conversations quickly turned from ‘self-isolation’ for some and the importance of washing your hands, to the more extreme – cancelling mass events, school closures and the prospect of a total lockdown. Stockpiling of non-perishable items was evidence people were preparing for “when, not if” things got worse. From a healthcare perspective, not only does the pandemic put enormous additional pressure on already stretched services, but it also raises a logistical problem of how to test and treat patients, when they can’t walk through the doors of their GP surgery or hospital. It’s no surprise then that the Scottish Government’s ambitions for digital healthcare reforms have been given renewed importance. Caroline Lamb, the recently appointed Scottish Government Director for Digital Reform and Service Engagement has now written to all NHS chief executives in Scotland confirming the rapid acceleration of NHS Near Me, a service which uses video conferencing to allow health providers to have virtual meetings with patients. A note to NHS boards said the programme was being rolled out “as a matter of senior leads within each one to ensure a coordinated approach. NHS Near Me was introduced by NHS Highland, with video consultations significantly helping provide people in more remote areas with better access to health facilities. The process had already been started to take the service to other parts of Scotland, but now this move has become more urgent. A total of £1.24 million has been put in to scale up the service as the government announced measures to bolster the NHS’ response to the pandemic (which also includes bringing back retired health professionals). Speaking to the media after the announcement, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the service will be more important as more people are advised to stay at home. She added: “It will also help relieve the pressure parts of our health service will be under. It’s important technology for the longer term but may have particular application in these challenging weeks and months that lie ahead of us.” NHS Near Me, is powered by Attend Anywhere, a platform founded in Australia. Other iterations of the software are also being launched in other areas of the UK. Guidance handed to health boards and GPs says NHS Near Me will not be appropriate for all consultations but it may be beneficial for: providing additional clinical information for patients with flu-like symptoms who have contacted their GP or NHS 24; patients with confirmed coronavirus or quarantined who cannot attend the clinic; reducing the number of patients coming to GP surgeries (avoiding exposure to patients who may be unknowingly carrying the virus); allowing GPs to work remotely either due to quarantine or reducing their infection risk; and allowing additional healthcare support when there is a significant outbreak of the virus (including out of hours, acute and primary care). The step up in the government’s digital healthcare plans comes only months after it breathed new life into its Digital Health and Care Strategy, which launched in 2018 as a ‘bold, ambitious and enterprising’ plan to we will use technology to reshape and improve services, support person-centred care, and improve outcomes. Speaking on a panel discussion at the Digital Health & Care Festival in Glasgow, Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the general public had high expectations of how digital technology should be used, in terms of providing healthcare tools, helping them manage conditions and illnesses and finding out information about their own health or of members of their family. Since its launch the Digital Health and Care Strategy has faced some criticism of having been allowed to drift, so the appointment of Caroline Lamb, who has been seconded from her role as chief executive of NHS Education for Scotland (NES), gives the strategy something of a new start. Lamb led a digital transformation at NES, which included developing the TURAS platform, which makes it easier for healthcare professionals to share information and resources more easily. Lamb is the first standalone director within government charged with delivering the digital health and care reforms and her appointment was announced with high expectations. Speaking at the same conference as the health secretary, Malcolm Wright, Director General, Health & Social Care at the Scottish Government said Lamb’s appointment was “a very tangible commitment from government to increase the pace and scale of the reforms that are taking place.”