NHS staff call for ‘long overdue’ investment in health tech to tackle wait times for diagnosis and treatment

  • Research by BT exposes growing sense of urgency amongst NHS staff about the pace of digital innovation in the healthcare service.
  • Most now believe investment in tech like digital records, remote diagnosis and care, as well as digital skills training would cut wait lists, cut costs, and improve patient outcomes
  • Four in five are calling for urgent collaboration between public and private sectors to deliver on promise of the NHS’s Digital Transformation Strategy and Long Term Plan
  • BT is also piloting a new AI powered Patient Concierge tool with Soprano Design to streamline patient communication, simplify referrals and reduce staff workload for the NHS.

NHS staff have joined a chorus of voices1 calling for the rapid rollout of digital technology to tackle growing wait times for diagnosis and treatment, as concerns mount around existing targets to reduce hospital waiting lists in England.

According to new research from BT, three quarters (74%) of NHS staff see future investments in tech as a priority. While NHS employees (60%) also believe more funds should be spent on growing the size of the workforce.

Digital diagnostic tools, such as virtual image streaming, and community-based healthcare services, like virtual wards, are already revolutionising access to health services by allowing patients to be diagnosed and treated from the comfort of their home. However, more than half (59%) of the people working in the NHS believe pilots are taking too long to reach widespread adoption, and that this is ultimately holding back patient care.

The vast majority (93%) of NHS staff see speedier access to diagnosis and treatment as either critically or very important for the future of the healthcare system, and 89% feel the same about curtailing wait times for test results specifically. Hospital waiting lists have reached record levels this year, with 7.7 million people waiting for treatment in August2, almost double the pre-pandemic number of 4.43 million; while 1.5 million are waiting for a diagnostic test 3.

The benefits of investment in digital tech are clear, with most NHS workers believing further investment would dramatically improve outcomes for both patients and taxpayers. Four in five (81%) NHS staff believe greater use of digital diagnostic tools would cut NHS wait times, a similar proportion (83%) expect them to improve patient outcomes, and 76% say that they would ultimately cut NHS costs.

This positive sentiment is also felt for virtual ward technology, with 76% believing further investment in this space would cut waiting times, while also improving patient outcomes (77%) and cutting costs too (71%).

Commenting on the research, Professor Sultan Mahmud, BT’s Director of Healthcare, said: “At BT we have spent the last few months listening to thousands of people inside and outside the NHS, and the message is clear: ‘embrace digital tech and cut wait times’. Those on the frontline and behind the scenes have told us that investing in digitally-enabled services like diagnostics, care closer to home, and the careful use of AI in areas like diagnostics and NHS back office functions could help improve productivity.

“We have the technology – what we need now is a co-ordinated approach. Government, citizens, NHS leaders and tech providers must work together to focus on the investment in infrastructure and delivery mechanisms that can help the challenged workforce. This is about realising the digital dividend of improved patient experience and reduced administrative burden for our clinicians.”

BT is already collaborating with organisations such as deepc and AXON Diagnostics on new digital services and is also working closely with the NHS through its Vanguard programme and Clinical Advisory Board, to support greater use of responsible AI and digital diagnostic technology across the health service.

Another new innovation is BT’s Patient Concierge tool, in collaboration with messaging specialists, Soprano, which promises to streamline patient communication, reduce time spent by NHS staff arranging appointments for diagnosis and treatment, and cut missed or double-booked appointments through the smart use of AI. BT says the tool being developed, and already being showcased to customers, will offer bespoke patient messaging solutions for the NHS and other healthcare organisations.

BT’s research found that more than half (53%) of NHS staff think AI will have a significant impact on clinical service delivery, most immediately through automated appointment booking and improving the accuracy of diagnosis. Most NHS staff now agree that AI has the potential to cut wait times (63%), improve patient outcomes (65%) and cut the cost of patient care (56%).

Barriers to success

Three quarters (76%) of NHS workers believe that health tech has already improved the standard of healthcare across the UK. So far this has been driven by increased collaboration with colleagues (70%), and improved training (56%), knowledge sharing (52%) and record keeping (48%). However, there is broad consensus that the NHS remains a long way behind other sectors.

Two thirds (72%) of the people using digital tech in the NHS every day think it is being held back by a lack of integration with other legacy technologies, while half (59%) complain about too many pilots that fail to roll out across the NHS. Others (48%) report that seemingly small gripes, such as needing to re-enter passwords at every turn, are causing frustration and ultimately slowing them down.

Training is pivotal

Two thirds (67%) of those working for the NHS say that digital training must be a key focus of investment in the future of the NHS, with 38% saying confidence using emerging technology is key to its success. The same applies to patients; almost three in five (57%) NHS staff acknowledge that the need to cater to all patients in the country, regardless of tech literacy, could be holding innovation back.

Dr Paul Bhogal, Consultant Interventional Neuroradiologist and member of BT’s Clinical Advisory Board, added: “The challenges facing the NHS are considerable, in some cases chronic, and nobody is under the illusion that the solutions will be simple, but clearly technological innovation is a big part of how we are going to succeed.

“We live in exciting times, especially in the world of diagnostics, and organisations like BT are playing an important role in bringing innovative technology to life in NHS trusts. If we want to improve access to healthcare in the UK, while improving patient outcomes, we must find technology that works, and put it in the hands of those that can put it to work.”

The insight into the opinion of NHS staff on technology use follows BT’s research earlier this summer1, which polled the general public on what they want to see when it comes to digital technology in healthcare. That research found a similar trend, with patients wanting to see technology play a bigger role in the NHS, and two thirds (64%) believing it to be a worthwhile investment.

Notes to editors.

Research conducted by Cadence Marketing, Part of BiP Solutions, on behalf of BT, polling 121 NHS staff between September and October 2023.

1 Research conducted by Opinium on behalf of BT, polling 2,063 UK adults, weighted to be politically and nationally representative, between the 21st and 23rd June 2023.

2 Consultant-led Referral to Treatment Waiting Times Data August 2023-24. https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/rtt-waiting-times/rtt-data-2023-24/

3 Statistics » Monthly Diagnostic Waiting Times and Activity (england.nhs.uk)

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