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Powerful paperless people - Getting the basics right

By Stephen Sutcliffe, director of finance & accounting at NHS Shared Business Services

Stephen SutcliffeThis month saw the publication of a "major new report" by Havant MP, Alan Mak, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. In it, he proposes "ambitious reforms to the NHS; shedding paper, pagers and fax machines to create a fully digital NHS that will help patients take control of their treatment".

Full disclosure: I have not read Mr Mak's report in detail. A brief review reveals some sound concepts - a flourishing ecosystem of apps and innovation within and around the NHS to better serve patients and put them in control, for example.

In truth, few would argue with the need for a slicker, more digital NHS, but the path towards this has been a slippery one. In 2016, the national Information Board set out its Paperless 2020 agenda, to "give patients more control over their health and wellbeing". Before that, in 2011, the National Programme for IT, once lauded as "the world's biggest civil information technology programme" was shelved (although parts of it, such as NHSmail and Electronic Prescriptions- are now in everyday use).

It seems to me that the majority of technological progress in the NHS is made not with hyperbole, but with a series of small, sustainable changes, taken by forward-looking people working at the sharp end - in hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries.

That's why I'm particularly proud of the suite of products we've been developing here at NHS SBS. First amongst those is ICON - our new(ish) income collection system. It doesn't make the tea, or turn on the autoclave, but it does make collecting low-value debt quicker and easier. Things like private patient charges, prescription fees, overseas patient charges and so on can now be paid for online (via a familiar "shopping cart"), by telephone or in person, using chip and pin machines. With NHS trusts writing off huge amounts of debt each year, the Department of Health and Social Care aims to double the amount of debt recovered from overseas patients to £500m per year. ICON makes reaching that target easier - and, importantly - demonstrates an organisation's commitment and progress in this area.

Another thing I've noticed is the increasing emphasis placed on technology empowering the patient. Indeed, Jeremy Hunt has dubbed the next 10 years the NHS's "patient power decade". I wholeheartedly endorse this. But using technology to empower staff, making sure the basics are right and freeing up time for other duties and patient care is also important. Things like The Edge 4 Health - a consumer-style procure-to-pay platform for the NHS - will make compliant purchasing of goods and services easier and swifter than ever before.

I wouldn't be so bold as to claim these innovations are complete game changers, because I don't believe there's a technological answer to all the challenges faced by the NHS. But incremental change - fixing the basics, and making things easier - make things better. My lack of hyperbole may frustrate the spin doctors, but real doctors (and all their NHS colleagues) know that small changes can be all it takes to change an unsuccessful outcome to a successful one.

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