With pressure to achieve digital transformation for greater efficiency and economies of scale, the health and education sectors face similar pressures.
To explore their common challenges, InterSystems organised a webinar in collaboration with ucisa, the professional body for digital practitioners in education. This focused on the remarkable achievement of University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHS) which has integrated the digitised data from more than a million patient records, enabling use of the information across systems, departments and other NHS organisations. This has streamlined patient care, facilitated the use of new technologies and helped accelerate crucial Covid-19 vaccine workflows.
The webinar illustrated to the higher education sector the critical importance of data interoperability. Just as the student/university relationship will be increasingly digital, so the future for the patient-hospital relationship will be ever more electronic, requiring an integrated core system.
In retrospect, one of the most critical decisions taken by UHS was to work with open platforms rather than buying a big box solution from a single vendor. Interoperability powered by InterSystems enables data to move between systems to give a good user experience without the necessity for a monolithic structure. This approach has also prevented a chaotic “ball of mud” in which different systems are acquired but fail to integrate properly. Adrian Byrne, UHS’s Chief Information Officer, who conducted the webinar, said: “People often talk about different things in interoperability. I mean a system talking to a system, exchanging information.”
Compliance with FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), the NHS’s newest data standard, has also been essential. This has facilitated a build-out that does not require the data itself to move between systems. It also illustrates how the data should outlive any system using it.
As in higher education, data standards in the NHS are important not only because of constant information-sharing between departments internally, but also because of the increasing importance of data transfers with external organisations. In the university sector this has obvious parallels with the necessity to share administrative data with official bodies and supply chain partners. But equally, data standards enable the sharing of huge amounts of research and other data with partners and other institutions.
An example of how digital transformation has changed everyday practices at the hospital is in ward rounds. Apple iPads have replaced the familiar clipboard holding a patient’s charts at the bed end, facilitating rapid access to a far greater amount of information for clinicians. With InterSystems’ integration engine working in the background, doctors request tests, scans and other diagnostics and are notified on Teams when results are available. This has led to faster analysis of results and swifter discharge procedures, a key advantage in coping with the Covid pandemic.
The efficiency of the new systems won over clinicians who had been sceptical at the outset, which has parallels in higher education where influential senior academics sometimes dissent from IT-led changes. The programme has not entirely eliminated paper records, but as digitisation advances, their use at UHS will decline, further stimulated by increased demand for remote monitoring and the successful uptake of the NHS app. This enables patients to log in, book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and see their records. The Open Personal Healthcare Record is also based on FHIR and is one of the most successful interoperability projects UHS has undertaken, supporting 15 hospitals. This is in Azure and enables apps to connect to it. Patients with long-term conditions, such as prostate cancer, can monitor their condition and only come into a clinic if they need to, reducing purposeless visits.
Taking inspiration from healthcare
For those working within IT in higher education, many of the challenges facing their counterparts in healthcare will be familiar. With a large number of different applications and systems and an ever-growing volume of data, health and higher education institutions alike see the importance of digital transformation for greater efficiency and economies of scale. This will enable a future that delivers new kinds of learning experiences in a customer-centred approach driven by technology.
The lessons from UHS’s journey for higher education suggest that without effective data integration, digital transformation is almost impossible. Processes remain clunky and inefficient, providing a sub-standard user experience. In the academic sector, a focus on interoperability will facilitate the sharing of highly detailed information effectively and securely, for everything from advanced research to administrative tasks such as onboarding and enrolment.
In the absence of interoperability and integration, students and academics are far less likely to enjoy a joined-up, digital first experience they expect. Nobody, for example, wants to provide their personal details, qualifications or CV every time they interact with a university administration. Academics want secure access to systems and libraries with minimum repetition. The institutions can lead their communities to present a highly agile, digital-first organisation in the age of AI. Environments which adopt interoperability and integration, can modernise their services, and deliver efficiencies.
Above all, UHS has helped to demonstrate an excellent use case of transformative data interoperability. Even though no two institutions are alike and there are distinct differences between IT in education and healthcare, UHS has shown what universities and other academic institutions can achieve.