Will informatics define the future of digital healthcare?

19 Nov 2020

Image: © thicha/Stock.adobe.com

Bob Gilkes of software firm Epro discusses the benefits informatics could bring to the future of healthcare – and the risks to take into account.

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Epro is a UK software firm that supports digital healthcare and clinical solutions for the country’s national health service.

The company was founded in 2001 by NHS clinician Dr Adam Towler, who wanted a way to overcome the mountain of paperwork facing healthcare professionals. Two years later, the company deployed its first product, an early clinical correspondence module, to hospitals in Birmingham. In 2007, its first custom solution was commissioned – discharge summaries for the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

Now, Epro’s tech solutions focus on everything from acute care to mental health. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company worked with the London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust to improve staff and patient safety by highlighting infectious patients in real time, among other things, as its COO previously told us.

According to Epro CEO Bob Gilkes, the company has built a team with expertise across software development, UI design, sales, marketing and professional and technical support services. It focuses on health informatics, which uses data and tech applications to try improve healthcare delivery, management and planning.

CEO of Epro Bob Gilkes is stainding in an office and looking up at something off-camera.

Bob Gilkes. Image: Epro

Why adopt informatics in healthcare?

The UK’s National Audit Office estimated earlier this year that the cost of the NHS’s updated digital transformation strategy came to £8.1bn.

“This is against a backdrop of healthcare provision already being an expensive investment,” Gilkes told Siliconrepublic.com. “But why? Because substantial sums can be wasted on repeat procedures, delays in care, as well as costs in traditional methods of sharing data.”

He said that “connected healthcare systems” could help reduce that type of wastage, with things like lab results being processed more quickly. Health informatics, he added, could help reduce errors, improve communication and drive efficiency.

“But there are other benefits beyond reducing wastage,” Gilkes continued. “Healthcare providers are always learning more, and health informatics provides a way for knowledge about patients, diseases and new treatments to be more easily shared.

“As knowledge is more readily circulated, the practice of medicine is improved for everyone involved – from practitioner to patient.”

How has Covid-19 impacted approaches to healthcare?

One of the biggest challenges facing the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world right now is Covid-19. But the need for change and digital transformation existed long before the pandemic hit, Gilkes said.

“In many ways, the pandemic has just accelerated change that was already in the system,” he added. “Healthcare is getting more and more specialised, with a growing number of touchpoints for patients across multiple specialities and settings.

“This increase in specialists requires an increase in coordination, and it’s health informatics that provides the way forward. Unless those conversations are made in tandem with one another, problems will arise and care will suffer. Health informatics makes the necessary coordination possible.”

The potential for informatics has also shone a light on the “many committed IT professionals” working to help respond to the pandemic, according to Gilkes. Alongside the work of frontline clinical staff, he said, those in IT have shown “considerable creativity and innovation” in developing a time-critical response.

This type of IT response to Covid-19 has been seen in Ireland too, accelerating the HSE’s digital transformation programme.

Considering the risks of digital healthcare

While data and IT are becoming bigger parts of the heathcare industry, Gilkes acknowledged that “there may be a risk looming” and that approaching patient care through technology could make it “less personal”.

“As data is gathered regarding a patient, algorithms could sort it to determine what is wrong and promote a care pathway,” he explained.

“It remains to be seen what effects this data-driven approach will have over time. Since care risks are getting less personal, having a valid and accurate record that the patient and their care providers can access remains vital. So, in this emerging paradigm I hope that the relationship between the NHS and suppliers will become more symbiotic.”

‘Health informatics provides a way for knowledge about patients, diseases and new treatments to be more easily shared’

As we move forward, Gilkes said it’s important to remember the mission of the healthcare industry when developing tech solutions. “There is little room for technology for technology’s sake, nor gaining a sensation of safety by ‘buying biggest’.

“Other industries have proven relationship management roles which extend beyond traditional procurement; they explore innovation, promote learning and mitigate risk.”

Profit will continue to be an “understandable commercial imperative” for most, he added, but it’s crucial that technology providers in this area subscribe to “mission over margin”.

“There are few decisions that cannot be undone safely and the Covid response has freed a strongly collaborative, almost wartime response to innovation,” he said. “It is, however, unlikely that this rate of change can continue.

“At some time, it is important to take stock, review what has and has not worked and do just a little tidying up. Hopefully the spirit will remain.”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021