Healthcare: Digital transformation trends 2021

Our predictions for the innovation and technology trends in the health sector this year

With such a broad and complex set of operations, the health sector is perfectly placed to benefit from digital transformation to both improve patient care and provide a better working environment for staff. Yet a reliance on legacy systems and the sheer scale of the health industry can make improvements extremely challenging...

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 understandably put health at the top of our minds, marking the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare providers - and particularly the NHS - as an even greater priority than before. The appetite is there amongst both practitioners and staff to embrace the opportunities of digital transformation, as a way of ensuring patients get the care they deserve.

With that in mind, we sat down with our partners and health digital transformation experts Difrent, to identify the trends we expect to see in the sector this year.

1) A shift to self care

With an ageing population, ever more complex care profiles, and stretched budgets, the emphasis of modern healthcare increasingly falls on empowering patients to manage their health themselves, reducing the burden on physical care services. This ambition motivated the release of NHS Direct in 1998, has been behind the rapid expansion of NHS.UK in recent years and is seen in the way pharmaceutical companies are now acquiring digital capabilities at a rapid pace.

The arrival of covid-19 has made this way of delivering care even more important, with the pandemic putting greater pressure on services and mandating us all to take charge of our own health to a greater extent.

Digital tools have a large part to play here, helping people to better manage long-term conditions, or plugging a gap until other treatment options are available. The NHS Apps Library provides accredited (both technically and in terms of efficacy) digital support for everything from cancer to mental health, and we expect to see a greater emphasis placed on these kinds of tools this year.

2) Remote consultations continue

If there was one standout health trend in 2020, it was a shift to remote care. Virtual consultations through secure platforms such as eConsult, Livi and Visionable exploded in popularity, as practitioners such as GPs adapted to the pandemic.

This trend - already on the rise before covid-19 - is not confined to primary care, with remote consultations now used to connect multidisciplinary teams of specialists from different locations. This not only ensures that patients receive an expert diagnosis, no matter where they are in the country, it also provides efficiency savings as practitioners no longer have to travel to collaborate on cases in a physical setting. With staff shortages and lengthy waiting lists set to be a feature of the foreseeable future, a continued emphasis on remote services will help ensure patients receive the best care as quickly as possible.

3) Remote monitoring through everyday digital tools

Staying with the remote theme, we will see increased reliance on everyday digital tools such as smartphones to help us monitor our health and provide metrics to care providers.

Innovative technology such as's video based monitoring tool detects a person's vital signs such as oxygen saturation, heart rate and respiration rate, using only a smartphone camera. These kinds of tools, along with wearable devices, enhance the data available to medical practitioners on the state of their patients, and is particularly useful in helping to support care or recovery outside of hospital settings.

4) Making more of healthcare data - the debate goes on

What can be done with the data from these devices is another question, and implicates Big Tech players as they begin to gain more traction in the health sector. The monitoring functionalities of devices such as the Apple watch have been well documented, with data tracking and alert capabilities that can save lives. Yet this kind of data cannot yet be shared with the NHS due to data protection regulations, and a lack of appropriate legislation in this space. With a greater shift to remote care we expect to see this debate open up again this year.

A spanner in the works against moving this forward is the lack of transparency that has so far been shown when awarding tech companies access to NHS data. Mismanagement of the NHS test and trace app last year - with government abandoning its own app for a version based on Google and Apple technology - shows the relationship between government and big tech as fraught with pitfalls. Politically, this is a huge challenge. Yet the increasing useability of machine learning tools such as Apple's Core ML is creating a growing community of people and organisations who can contribute to powerful applications, with the potential to greatly improve our health.

5) System transformation through automation

When it comes to impactful, large scale transformation, intelligent automation is quickly proving its value in the health sector. Nowhere is this more clear than during the coronavirus pandemic, where staff must deal with additional pressures and processes. For example, Foundry4's Automation team recently partnered with Kettering General Hospital to automate their covid-19 Situation Reports - which would otherwise have required employees to manually collate and submit data on the covid status of staff and patients, the general state of patient flows and the availability of beds within the hospital. In a similar example which demonstrates the value of automation when dealing with repetitive back-office processes, we also worked with Swansea Bay University Health Board to automate their prescription invoicing process, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction in workload for the Pharmacy Department.

Now that this technology has been successfully proven in the NHS, we would expect to see a shift away from pilot projects or proof of concepts in this space in 2021, as further health organisations capitalise on the experience of others. Indeed, initiatives such as Blue Prism's Digital Exchange have been created to promote knowledge transfer around automation and the sharing of processes that have already been automated in the NHS.

6) A greater emphasis on change management

The NHS has historically been incredibly slow to transform itself and embrace digital technologies. Whilst the rapid response to covid-19 showed what is possible, with change decided upon and implemented in days, it also exposed that digital transformation needs to happen in a systematic way, as part of a long term vision to support the delivery of care to patients and the practitioners who provide it. This requires a joined up approach, with improved communication and collaboration between healthcare providers. It also requires an appreciation of digital transformation that puts digital technology beyond the concern of the CIO and their specialist teams. There must be a culture of transformation in healthcare organisations that actively involves the wider workforce and patients.

According to the Accelerating Digital Healthcare whitepaper from Public Policy Projects, for this to be achieved a greater commitment must be made to provide digital training to NHS staff, improving digital literacy and giving them an appreciation of the value of digital technologies in their work.

It is also vital that change management be included as part of the budget when implementing a new digital technology in healthcare organisations. This involves a focus on value rather than absolute cost in the procurement process, and should help to ensure that new solutions are successfully communicated, implemented and used to their full potential.

Another year, another set of challenges

2021 is set to be another difficult year for the health sector, as the fight against covid-19 continues, and already-overloaded services deal with the fallout of successive months of a pandemic. Yet if there is a positive to be gained from recent events it is the way the coronavirus has shown the value of digital technology in responding to urgent healthcare needs, improving services for patients, and helping us all to manage our health better. We are sure to see more of this life-changing work this year.

Thanks to Rachel Murphy, Randal Whitmore, and Daniel Leakey at Difrent for their contributions to this article.

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Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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