Meet the woman spearheading digital transformation in the HSE

15 Dec 2021

Image: Lorraine Smyth

After a damning report on the Irish health service’s IT system following this year’s cyberattack, the HSE’s award-winning communications and innovations lead shines a light on the tech it has gotten right.

While digital transformation is changing virtually every industry right now, one of the most crucial areas that is transforming is the healthcare sector.

In Ireland, a lot of this transformation is taking place within the country’s Health Service Executive (HSE).

Last year, we spoke to Yvonne Goff about how Covid-19 broke digital transformation barriers in the HSE. Another innovative woman working within this space is Lorraine Smyth, who has several strings to her bow.

Smyth works as communications and innovations lead in digital transformation as well as Covid-19 laboratory logistics lead in the HSE. She was recently named Digital Transformation Leader of the Year and Innovator of the Year at the Women in IT Awards in Ireland.

‘One of the things I would like to see is more women involved in digital health transformation’

Starting with her role as communications and innovations lead, Smyth told about what her day-to-day might look like.

“I could be working on a pilot project with a closed loop drone delivery system, to working with Irish SMEs on robots for assisted living or Covid, and mRSA-killing robots that clean hospital CT rooms. One of the parts of the role I enjoy is getting to meet clinicians and working collaboratively to introduce digital systems that can provide a better service.”

When she first heard the HSE needed a Covid laboratory logistics lead, Smyth felt she had to step up, given her 16 years of experience in material management within the HSE.

“I thought this is something that needs to be done by a procurement professional, it is important to everyone in the country,” she said.

“I have a team of HSE and agency staff from Deloitte. They are one of the best teams I have worked with. Most people don’t really think about it, but my staff are there from early in the morning to late at night, including weekends. They are making sure we manage lab capacity and provide an excellent customer service to testing centres nationally and also nursing homes and prisons, all within a 24-hour turnaround time. The team are really amazing and I really value their commitment to their work.”

Bringing tech to the HSE

The HSE has faced challenges this year, with a cyberattack in May infiltrating its IT systems with ransomware and causing severe impacts on the health service in Ireland. A report into the incident, released last week, described the HSE’s IT estate as “frail” and recommended that it enhance its ICT strategy.

But in the shadow of this report, the work of Smyth shines a light on what the HSE is capable of when digital transformation is implemented effectively. In her role as communications and innovation lead, she wants to use digital technology to transform Ireland’s health system from both a clinician and patient point of view.

“I could be working in any of the area of digital transformation in one day from the exploration stage evaluating ideas from our ideas portal on our HSE digital transformation page, to progressing an idea from the proof-of-concept stage with a cross-functional team of clinicians, patients and SMEs,” she said.

“The next stage is the demonstrator stage where we might expand to more sites, and finally the broad adoption stage where we roll out nationally. It is very important to me that the clinicians who are going to use the digital technology are involved at all stages in these innovations and that the patients have a say in what best suits them.”

As the Covid laboratory logistics lead, Smyth said one of the projects that came to fruition was the Sample Path system, which is a digital tracking system for tests.

“Each sample is given a unique bar code. This is scanned in the test centre and uploaded onto the Sample Path system. This way we have visibility at all times at what stage the client’s sample is at and it also enables us to forecast laboratory capacity. I can see in real time every test centre in every [Community Healthcare Organisation] area and how many samples have been done and how many sent forward to the lab. I can see uses for this even after Covid – it is so easy to use and provides essential information.”

Another way Smyth helped bring technology into the health service is through her work as project manager for the roll-out of a Covid monitoring app from Irish start-up PatientMPower, which enables clinicians to preserve hospital resources for patients that need them most while ensuring rapid triage at the first signs of deterioration.

“The app connects to a Bluetooth pulse oximeter; a patient takes a reading of their saturation level and their pulse three times a day. The reading can be displayed in a hospital on a portal or on a GP desktop or laptop. A patient with mild Covid symptoms can be discharged and still be monitored. If the saturation level falls below 94, the patient needs to return for more care. The app can send an alert to the clinician and also to the patient to contact each other.”

‘I think the health service has really changed how we work and what we use to access and monitor patients’

The app was used in more than 20 hospitals across Ireland as well as in some homeless shelters and with the Roma community. According to Smyth, the app not only helped save patients’ lives, but also saved €20m in bed nights for the HSE.

“I had a small team in PatientMPower and a resource from KPMG – David Dowling and this team were incredible. They should be really proud of what we achieved. I used this project for my MSc in digital transformation in healthcare and recently won Student Project of the Year in the Irish Healthcare Awards.”

The Covid-19 effect

In many industries, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation and this was no different for the HSE.

“We had a funnel with solutions where there were about eight projects we were working on before Covid and we had a few in the broad adoption end. After Covid, the funnel was full in the proof-of-concept, the demonstrator and the broad adoption levels. I think the health service has really changed how we work and what we use to access and monitor patients,” said Smyth.

“It has been shown that informed patients are significantly more likely to be satisfied with their care and many people are already turning to technologies to better support their care. People are more aware of innovative technologies that enable better management of their health the change is there and it is for the better.”

Smyth said Ireland can be a leader in innovation and digital health transformation, but this innovation must go hand in hand with inclusion.

“One of the things I would like to see is more women involved in digital health transformation. I would hope young women see female digital leaders and are encouraged to choose this as a career,” she said.

“We do see Covid-19 as being the Big Bang in digital disruption of health services, but the use of these new technologies have brought us to the place we should have been at all along, using the right care in the right place at the right time, and this is a really good start.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic