Digital workforce solutions that enable real change

With digital technology playing an increasingly important role in ensuring a happy and efficient NHS workforce, Sean Hopkins, head of Programmes and Technology for Employment Services at NHS Shared Business Services, describes some of the existing solutions that are already available to NHS organisations

As the NHS has become accustomed to operating differently as a result of Covid-19, one of the consequences has been the acceleration of digital solutions that have transformed – almost overnight – how clinicians interact with patients and each other.

The speed at which the switch to remote consultations occurred, for instance, shows just what can be achieved when the impetus is there. Doctors and patients have adapted quickly to the need for social distancing by using video conferencing technology for clinic appointments. For many patients this has been a welcome and more convenient arrangement than attending in person.

Before the pandemic, the direction of travel was already very much around empowering patients by enabling them to do more online. The clear focus on digital transformation within the NHS Long Term Plan, for example, and the formation of NHSX to drive digital priorities, such as interoperability, user experience and innovation, are part of an NHS commitment that ‘digitally-enabled care will go mainstream across the NHS’.

And, whilst the last few months have hastened the digital transformation of some clinical services, NHS organisations should now also be looking at how technology can deliver greater workforce efficiencies, which can make the lives of NHS workers easier as they get used to a ‘new normal’.

In the NHS Operational Planning and Contacting Guidance for 2020/21, which sets out what NHS organisations should do now to achieve the outcomes the NHS has committed to deliver by 2023/24, NHS England and NHS Improvement say that ‘investment in technology, done in the right way, improves care, increases productivity, reduces the burden on staff freeing up more time to care…’.

The Electronic Staff Record
The good news for NHS organisations is that there has already been significant investment in workforce technologies that address the admin burden on NHS workers.

The most well-known is the Electronic Staff Record (ESR), which was rolled out to NHS organisations across the country in between 2006 and 2008, to drive efficiencies, enhance data security, improve productivity and save money. At the time it was considered to be the biggest programme of its kind in the world.

Before joining NHS SBS, I was part of the team that led this national rollout – helping to train users and migrate huge amounts of data from countless other HR and payroll platforms.

This technology is, therefore, already in place at almost every NHS organisation in the country. But the reality is that it is not being used to anywhere near its full potential. The reason for this is that most NHS employers only use the HR and Payroll modules and ignore other functionality.

Today, my team at NHS SBS works with NHS organisations to help them unlock the additional benefits ESR provides. Implementing or optimising the use of Self Service modules, for example, provides both managers and employees with a single digital platform for HR-related matters.

Instead of paper forms and multiple systems and processes, NHS organisations can enable their employees and managers to book and approve annual leave, manage personal information, enter sickness details, and complete training and appraisals, quickly and easily, all in one place.

As well as helping the NHS to get the most out of ESR, NHS SBS has invested in new NHS workforce technologies, which are designed using the principles of automation, digitisation and user experience – whilst being entirely interoperable with ESR. Just like with patients, the better use of technology can empower NHS employees and reduce the admin burden that gets in the way of delivering world-class care.

The MySBSPay payroll app, for instance, is designed to provide almost 400,000 NHS employees – at around 90 different organisations that use the NHS SBS payroll service – with round-the-clock access to their payslips and P60s via their phone or tablet. The user-friendly app gives a detailed breakdown of pay and deductions, and enables NHS staff to ask questions about their pay via chatbot technology.

The result is a significant reduction in common queries to the payroll service desk, things like payslip clarifications, tax enquiries, pay day information requests and maternity pay questions. This equates to some 380 NHS workforce hours being saved every month at hospitals up and down the country. Time we know is being redirected into frontline care.

Similarly, ePay is a digital system that interfaces seamlessly with ESR and was developed as a more intuitive and quicker way for employees to submit expense and salary claims, or log absence and HR forms. Around 40 NHS provider trusts currently use the system to provide a better user experience for their staff. The technology saves hundreds of thousands of pounds for NHS organisations by improving the accuracy of timesheets and expense claims, whilst eradicating thousands of error-prone paper forms every year.

Providing NHS employees with greater flexibility is also a key factor when it comes to implementing new digital workforce solutions successfully. With the NHS Operational Planning and Contacting Guidance for 2020/21 also pointing to the need ‘to support NHS providers to reduce their agency staff bills and encourage workers back into substantive and bank roles’, one way this can be achieved is by introducing a weekly payroll.

By offering more regular payments, which is one of the main attractions of working through an agency, NHS trusts can incentivise more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to join their ‘bank’ – on average 20 per cent less expensive than paying for temporary agency staff. One trust we worked with to implement a weekly payroll managed to double the number of bank hours worked by its own registered nurses – saving around £10 million on agency fees in just 12 months.

In his technology vision for the NHS, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock points to the fact that some NHS staff ‘work in paper-based organisations where mobile working and digital technology could increase efficiency and productivity’, but that others ‘report significant improvement in working practices from the adoption of technology that works for them’.

Two years on, the hope is that more NHS organisations will look to digital workforce solutions that enable real change. The reward, as the Secretary of State said when he set out his vision in 2018, is that ‘digitisation will save health and care providers money and free up staff time – money and time that can be better used to provide great care’.

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