Report: “COVID-19 saw the transformation of the NHS into the National COVID Service”

A joint report produced by public services think-tank Reform and healthcare data analytics company Edge Health has shone light on the harsh impact the pandemic has had on NHS England as a complete health service, saying “the system became too focussed on the short-term response to the crisis at the expense of maintaining essential non-COVID services.”

With the vast majority of resources redirected to strengthen the frontline against COVID-19, what were deemed non-essential services and procedures were put on hold, which, the report notes, has resulted in worsening health conditions, an ever-increasing backlog of procedures and  thousands of non-COVID related excess deaths.

It states: “The bulk of non-COVID care provision came to a halt as non-urgent procedures were cancelled and patients stopped presenting, possibly due to a combination of fear of catching COVID-19 and not wanting to place additional burden on health services. This meant that some healthcare practitioners, as highlighted by several interviews carried out for this paper, were left “twiddling their thumbs” because there was little non-COVID work to do.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Not only does the report draw attention to the real-life implications of decisions made throughout the pandemic, but it also highlights how NHS England’s response was shaped by chronic conditions of understaffing, underfunding and inconsistent data quality and accessibility.

Having interviewed 23 individuals and healthcare organisations, the report provided a list of nine recommendations taken from the data. These included: the publication of procedure waitlist recovery plans; Government funding for more hospital beds; the building of community diagnostic hubs; and a reserve list of healthcare professionals who could be called to the NHS in crisis situations.

The recommendations also acknowledged the role of data and tech, stating that “NHS England was not equipped with the right technology to have a singular view of key operational data” at the start of the pandemic. Acknowledging the progress in digital uptake over the course of the last year, the report asserts the need for enhanced privacy and smoother digital pathways moving forward, recommending, for instance, the adoption of the Scan4Safety programme to all NHS Trusts, which enables data to be collected accurately and securely from barcodes.

Tech could also be used to support other recommendations, such as end-to-end supply chain maps identifying firms that could switch production to diagnostic equipment, an up-to-date inventory of key assets such as PPE and ventilators, and crisis-targeted training modules for healthcare professionals.

THE LARGER PICTURE

The report explicitly does not focus on other issues suffered by the NHS during the pandemic, such as workforce burnout and social care sector resilience, as the authors believe these topics deserve their own research paper.

ON THE RECORD

The report states: “Technology has a fundamental role to play in the NHS’s recovery and future resilience. Digital health applications can be used for whole swathes of care, from optimising the use of diagnostic equipment to helping patients manage their conditions at home. However, truly harnessing the power of technology is dependent on good quality data. The NHS struggles with having access to and analysing the right data at the right time in order to make informed and evidence-driven decisions. In addition to data quality issues, data in healthcare can often be trapped in clunky and old proprietary systems – meaning it cannot be extracted from these systems or appropriately shared.

It continues: “There are several upcoming reviews and strategies in the healthcare data landscape, with the DHSC recently announcing a review into use of health data for research and analysis. There is also going to be a Data Strategy for Health and Social Care which will set the direction for the use of data in a post-pandemic healthcare system. These are all crucial steps in the right direction.”

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