NHS digital agency leaders ready for Coronavirus

COVID-19 is increasing demand on healthcare digital services, but the UK's digital health agency leaders believe they can cope and will herald change

"We are not just facing a bit more demand, we are facing a fundamentally different demand profile and that is what we are working to address," Sarah Wilkinson, CEO of NHS Digital told a gathering of health service CIOs, CTOs and clinicians about the Coronavirus.

Former CIO for the UK's Home Office as well as global financial services providers, Wilkinson provided CIO peers with a reassuring, but also realistic insight into how NHS Digital is responding to the COVID-19 virus. With the disease spreading at a rate that is causing public alarm, technology will play a vital role in how the disease is fought, how the health sector acts and possibly operates if clinicians cannot be in hospitals.

Coronavirus is described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as "a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. The most recently discovered coronavirus causes Coronavirus disease COVID-19. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Around one out of every six people that gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness".

NHS Digital is the "national information and technology partner to the health and social care system using digital technology to transform the NHS and social care". Wilkinson said NHS Digital was facing unprecedented demand but has carried out significant load testing and is confident it can cope with increasing demand if the virus increases its impact on the UK. "We knew we could cope with 12 times the demand, but by Monday demand had moved to a peak of 19 times that, so we have a constant eye on the demand," Wilkinson said last Wednesday of how demand had increased over the previous weekend. Increasing media focus is of course driving up the pressure on the nation's health services too. 

Providing an insight into life inside NHS Digital at the Rewired Health event for health and clinical technology leaders Wilkinson told CIOs and CTOs how the organisation is changing its operational model on a daily basis to meet the national needs of this worrying virus.

"People are more creative, they are bolder and more decisive and these qualities emerge at these times and it allows you to push the system," she said of her team. NHS Digital staff are revising the clinical algorithm that underpins a wide range of NHS Services as the virus changes the demand on the national health service. NHS 111 and NHS 111 online are the two key citizen facing services provided by Wilkinson's organisation, one a telephone service the other online, and the CEO explained how these amenities are responding.

"We are enabling as many people as possible to access the 111 services and this is imperative as the call centres are deluged, so we have moved the triage to online. As the epidemic has progressed the clinical response has changed a lot, so the call scripts for our 111 handling staff is changing daily, we are on our 15th set of guidelines for them," she said.  Adding that the 111 online service now has a unique Coronavirus site to help those concerned.

To continue reading this article register now