When the new Health and Social Care secretary, Matt Hancock, recently pledged £75m to help NHS trusts acquire digital systems to drive efficiencies, the national narrative understandably focused on the benefits to patient care. Yet the advantages of a paperless NHS – where the speed, visibility and responsivity of clinical services will undoubtedly improve – are not limited to front-line care. The digitisation of downstream administrative processes such as medical education and HR is key to delivering a sustainable NHS. It is also essential if trusts are to maintain the high-quality workforce they need to manage the spiralling demand for care.
Certainly, new rules from Health Education England (HEE) that redefine funding processes for medical education have changed the game completely. The April 2018 introduction of centralised study budgets, along with new processes to apply for leave, means it’s now more important than ever that PGME departments move away from inflexible paper-based platforms and instead deploy an agile digital system that can efficiently manage leave for both trainees and consultants alike.
The new HEE mandate means that trusts are no longer awarded budgets for study leave. Instead, budgets are held centrally at HEE with trusts required to claim back funding as and when required. With a very specific format for claims submissions and only a 30-day window in which these submissions can be made, there is now a heavy onus on PGME departments to maintain accurate and robust records of study leave that can be securely accessed in real time, to prove the legitimacy of every claim. Paper-based systems are ill-equipped to manage such processes quickly and accurately. They often rely heavily on manual input and onerous sign-off processes that slow down progress and stifle productivity. It is clear: with a 30-day ticking clock every time a trainee or consultant has taken leave, an inability to act quickly can be very costly. Furthermore, paper-based systems carry increased risk of human error, duplicated processes and datasets and data security breaches – with the common practice of sharing spreadsheets a major Information Governance (IG) risk.
Digital leave management solutions can automate many of the processes slowed down by paper – saving trusts time and money. In the first instance, automation alone can make it much easier to claim HEE funding quickly and efficiently. However, the advantages of digital go beyond funding reimbursement. Good systems are designed to safeguard against human error, data duplication and IG breach, as well as providing robust reporting tools to support ongoing management and audit requirements.
Growing pressures on PGME departments, as well as issues surrounding the retention and allocation of a well-trained workforce, are significant. The constant need for medical education – for both junior doctors and consultants – creates an ever-present demand for training and study that cannot be supported by antiquated paper systems or by generic leave management systems, which is why solutions that can support the entire end-to-end process are so crucial. The most effective leave management solutions are those that are specifically designed to manage medical education and HR, supporting both trainees and consultants in paperless ways that drive efficiencies, save money and, ultimately, help NHS trusts deliver high-quality patient care.
If the NHS is to truly get to a position where the increasing demand for care is to be properly addressed, then the paperless agenda must be fully embraced. We must recognise that the streamlining of administrative tasks, which in addition provides better support for our workforce, has a powerful role to play that is equal to the digitisation of front-line care.