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December 29, 2006

Melting the Darkness

Picture of dawn with a lighthouse.“Dark days before Christmas,” my Mother says. It may be those short days just after the winter solstice that are dulling my mood while I look back on my time in healthcare IT. How much has changed and how much have we learned? Not nearly enough.

Darkness hangs over the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) as we end the year. Accenture has left and the future of software supplier Isoft is unclear. Progress on the core cross-organisational National Care Records Service—for me the Programme’s essence—is also well behind schedule.

But shafts of light pierce the dark. NPfIT’s PACS deployments have progressed well. Though an easy win, they are nonetheless an important one because they highlight the benefits of sharing electronic patient-based information. Also, Cinderella sections of the NHS like Community and Mental Health are benefiting from the deployment of new systems.

My mood has also been lightened by the number of young clinicians, especially doctors, excited by the possibilities of information technology. I have recently met several—some working with Professor Sir Ara Darzi’s unit in London, which looks at the integration of technology into medicine.

At this time of year the days lengthen slowly with the darkest hours just before dawn.

December 15, 2006

Admiring the Heights, Gazing into the Chasm?

Mountain ViewIn the last month or so I have attended a couple of conferences as a speaker and a chair. What caught my attention were the number of opportunities for using technology in healthcare--particularly in remote monitoring and diagnosis--and how this contrasts with the situation of UK healthcare ICT.

At the BCS eBrochan conference in Glasgow (brochan means porridge, apparently) Prof. Frances Mair, Professor of Primary Care Research, at the University of Glasgow, talked about the real application of telecare and telemedicine, stressing the importance of having clear aims and of adequate preparation and reorganisation. Too often such projects are tacked on to existing practice, which often means staff have to do their day job and manage the pilots.

I chaired the recent Mobilising the Clinician conference where talks ranged from making better use of the PDA to remote monitoring and diagnosis using wireless and GPRS. On the second day, Professor Istepanian of the Mobile Information and Network Technologies Research Centre (MINT) described an array of applications some using GSM or the faster GPRS for monitoring vital signs; for example, transmitting ECGs, blood oxygen saturation and blood sugar levels. Ultasound scans have even been taken remotely in Cyprus.

Dr Omar Aziz works in Professor Sir Ara Darzi's unit at Imperial College in London. He described the possible use of body sensor networks (BSN) in mobile health (m-Health). BSN could be applied widely in healthcare; for example, in monitoring vulnerable patients and post-operative recovery.

Lest we lost touch with reality at these rarified heights, Jon Holmes, Informing Healthcare Project Manager at Gwent Healthcare Trust in Wales, told us about the challenges of implementing wireless computing on wards, which allowed nurses to record Admissions, Discharges and Transfers in real time.

In the UK, 21st Century ICT must be implemented in a 20th Century healthcare system. Benedict Stanberry of Avienda suggested healthcare IT is on the brink of the chasm referred to in Geoffrey Moore's book Crossing the Chasm. The chasm is a void on a notional curve that spans the phases of technology adoption. Moore's chasm opens up between the phases of early adoption (comprising the enthusiasts) and early majority (the pragmatists), because expectations are distinctly different.

The illustrious Royal Society also suggests UK healthcare's adoption of ICT is dilatory. Its report Digital Healthcare covers familar ground for readers of FHIT. As well as looking at the view from the top, it suggests more can be made of existing systems and that even applications like mobile phone SMS messaging still offer unexploited footholds.

Hmmm. When it comes to integrating ICT into healthcare, scaling the peak will be an achievement and the views will be fantastic--but there's a lot of abseiling and climbing still to do.