Why digital transformation matters more than ever

Sascha Giese explores how the UK healthcare sector has digitally transformed - and must continue to - to cope with the coronavirus pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the world in a profound way, with measures to control the virus extending deep into our lives. In the UK, the public and private health workforces have reshaped their work on a scale not seen since World War II, making it possible to shift their services at an incredible speed in a monumental effort to control infections and protect those most at risk.

This multi-layered, complex, and rapid response would no doubt have been much more difficult in past years when we couldn’t draw on our tech-powered society to fill some of the gaps enforced by social distancing and lockdown. Examples of the enabling link between society and technology are numerous and impressive. In March, for instance, GPs were told to switch from face-to-face consultations to using phone, video, or text services instead. This is in stark contrast to the one per cent of appointments carried out via video before Covid-19 arrived. Back in 2018, doctors and health experts greeted the idea of increasing the amount of video consultations ‘with scepticism’, with privacy among the leading concerns. But needs must, and urgent pragmatism has—for the short term, at least—taken priority so people can still have access to essential basic services.

Throughout this crisis, technology has been working to meet unprecedented demand. Now, as lockdown eases, the healthcare sector faces the challenge of resuming the delivery of planned patient services while remaining vigilant and prepared for a future virus resurgence. For administrators in healthcare organisations, the cumulative lessons learned during the initial crisis will prove critical for maintaining operational continuity while protecting patients and employees in numerous care-giving environments.

As healthcare leaders prepare to reshape care delivery models in preparation for the realities of our new world, healthcare—and indeed all public sector bodies—will need to be given, from the back end to the frontline, extreme flexibility to cope with fast-changing needs. From a technology perspective, The Wall Street Journal recently reported public sector IT systems in the U.S. are facing a ‘crush of coronavirus-linked demands’, giving ‘CIOs a compelling argument that digital projects need to be greenlit as a priority’.

When crisis accelerates change
This brings us back to a familiar theme: the need for a faster, more complete, and more effective digital transformation to embed the innovation brought by advances in automation and machine learning into the machinery of the public sector (and in this context specifically, healthcare). Organisations more advanced in their commitment to tech-led operational agility will likely cope more effectively today than those lagging behind (either for policy or funding reasons).

Working from home is a good example. In 2019, research showed just three per cent of public sector workers did their jobs mainly from home, compared to 17 per cent in the private sector. By 24 March this year, the entire country was instructed they should only go to work if they could not work from home—a massive shift in working culture for millions of people.

But how many public sector bodies were geared for the practically overnight switch to home working? There’s a lot to consider, not least of which is providing the appropriate infrastructure when budgets for the year may already have been allocated. Organisations suddenly had to add or increase the number of devices provided to staff.

Then there’s the complex issue of security, which is a tough ask for any organisation not routinely in the business of supporting large numbers of people working from home. At present, the need to enable remote working brings the risk that gaps in security technology, services, or expertise will be exploited in the weeks ahead.

As a result, healthcare cyber security will need to rely on a partnership between existing departmental teams and private sector specialists. In the private sector, for example, the wide-ranging adoption of cloud services means many organisations are already geared for a shift to remote working. Even when they’re not, service providers have built an entire industry around their ability to quickly adapt to customer needs and scale IT services according to demand, allowing organisations to stay up and running.

This kind of experience may prove particularly useful to the healthcare sector in the weeks and months ahead. Looking at the longer term, digital transformation across the board is likely to be given added momentum as a vital tool for the dedicated medical professionals working to end the Covid-19 crisis.

Sascha Giese is Head Geek™ at SolarWinds.

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