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July 12, 2022

Securing the future foundation for a digital NHS

Matt Barnes, Maintel’s Head of Health & Housing, shares his vision for an IT network architecture fit for the NHS’ digital journey.

The coronavirus pandemic revolutionised almost every aspect of life, not least on the frontlines of healthcare, which saw the extraordinary transformation of services from being primarily in-person care to digital-first services. Telephone and video consultations  became a necessity.  

While the pandemic called for lightning-fast digital transformation, in this post-pandemic period, the UK National Health Service’s (NHS) digital journey is at a pivotal point. Having adopted many new technologies, including telehealth solutions such as the NHS app which is set to offer video consultations by 2024, now is the time for decisions about the onward route. Given the continued pressures on healthcare services, alongside elevated patient and employee expectations, ensuring stable and secure digital communications is vital. 

It is now more important than ever for healthcare providers to communicate and collaborate effectively. However, many of the legacy, traditional communication and collaboration systems underpinning the NHS are not up to the task. They are often cumbersome and difficult to use, leading to frustration and wasted time. Moreover, they often do not provide the level of connected, instant patient interaction that is crucial in today’s healthcare environment. While in-person clinics are still vital, telephone triages continue to reduce the number of in-person consultations and allow certain staff to enjoy the work-life balance of hybrid or fully remote working.  

Matt Barnes, Maintel’s Head of Health & Housing

Securing the digital front door 

Telephone and video consultations provide healthcare services, such as GP practices, with a digital ‘front door’, giving patients better access to virtual services via a computer or smartphone. This gives  patients and clinicians access to real-time healthcare data and information. With unified, cloud-based communications systems allowing increasingly paperless processes, combining those with patient data further enables the creation of connected and streamlined services, benefitting patients and healthcare professionals alike.  

The increased adoption of digital communications paradigms is not without challenges. In healthcare settings where the most personal data is the bedrock of the service, privacy and security are pivotal. Five years ago, the security threat became all too real when the WannaCry cyberattack severely disrupted 80 hospital trusts and led to 19,000 appointments being cancelled.  

Now, with even greater reliance on digital communications, security and reliability are at the forefront of the NHS’ digitalisation concerns. As Elizabeth Giugno, head of category for cybersecurity at Crown Commercial Service (CCS) recently highlighted, the NHS has seen a “significant increase in cyberattacks since the beginning of the pandemic.” 

The ideal architecture for digital services  

Digitisation demands a scalable, secure, reliable, and flexible healthcare IT network that enables cloud-centric work. The Wide Area Network (WAN) IT architectures that healthcare settings traditionally relied on, are inflexible and unable to handle the intensive applications that professionals and patients now require and are simply not up to the job.  

This is where SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Network) solutions can deliver. With the ability to integrate quickly into existing infrastructure, SD-WAN provides a cloud-friendly architecture that can deliver uninterrupted services across all healthcare applications while ensuring adherence to the strictest compliance regulations. The ability to integrate next-generation security protection from a range of vendors means it is both secure and scalable.    

Security meets unified collaboration 

In today’s healthcare environment, it is more important than ever for providers to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. With patients often being seen by multiple providers at different facilities, there must be a way for everyone to share information and stay up-to-date on the latest developments. Unified communications (UC) offers a set of tools and technologies that helps to facilitate this type of communication. UC can provide a single platform for voice, video, and data communications, making it easier for distributed teams to stay connected.  

Additionally, UC helps  improve the quality of care by allowing for real-time collaboration between providers. As the healthcare landscape continues to evolve, UC will become an increasingly essential component of keeping providers connected and offering the best possible care for patients. 

SD-WAN can provide a flexible, secure base from which healthcare providers can build UC across the entirety of services. For many, enabling UC through SD-WAN is the answer to secure and collaborative digital healthcare.  

Grasping the opportunity 

The NHS is at a pivotal point, with the opportunity to adopt technology that securely collates and enables the flow of information between professionals, integrating cost-effective digital services that benefit healthcare providers and patients alike.  

Navigating this journey cannot successfully be achieved alone. Working with expert technology partners embedded in the industry is essential. With such expertise at hand, there is no need for healthcare services to experience downtime while transitioning to new systems. Similarly, there is no “one size fits all” model. Healthcare providers should consider working with experts who can develop a personalised implementation approach for each healthcare setting.

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