In the year when everything changed, and when February feels like such a long time ago, it still holds that we can usefully shape our tomorrows by learning from the past.

Last September, I had the opportunity to join healthcare leaders from the UK and the Nordic countries at an event in London to talk about empowering people living with long-term conditions and improving the care provided for them. It was obvious that we share much common ground in terms of the challenges we face and our search for solutions. It was equally clear that a conviction that technology can significantly help to achieve those aims also unites us.

So what’s the relevance of then to now?

A new report based on case studies from countries taking part in that meeting, commissioned by the AHSN Network and written by the King’s Fund, has just been published. Technology and innovation for long-term health conditions looks at four digital innovations being used in health services in the UK and the Nordic countries.

They include: the TeleCare North programme, which improves quality of life for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); the Patients Know Best portal and electronic health record which helps people maintain their independence in partnership with clinicians; remote diabetes monitoring for children and families to live their lives with the support of Helsinki University Hospital; and the Huoleti app that connects patients with a support network of peers.

The AHSN Network is a partner in the NHS Reset campaign that is led by NHS Confederation and there’s a consistent message in this new report and the current campaign. The case studies in the report show lives being transformed through digital innovation. These digital technologies are working now and empowering patients, strengthening therapeutic relationships and enabling more effective teamworking across professional boundaries.

I’m struck by how relevant this is as the NHS moves into phase 3 of its response, holding on to the digital gains of the last six months, working differently and unlocking the power of technology at much greater scale to reach many more patients. The case studies in the report are bang on in terms of relevance with their focus on Virtual Wards, Remote Monitoring and the benefits of Supported Self Care.

International collaboration

The international theme also seems more relevant than ever – hasn’t a combination of global pandemic and the primacy of digital communications also brought us closer together?

Kent Surrey Sussex (KSS) AHSN has a long-standing relationship with the region of Southern Denmark and in recent years we have visited the health system there, as well as hosted delegates from Denmark to accelerate the spread of successful innovation from one country to the other. The new report showcases one of them – Danish innovation in the care of COPD patients. And now that there’s an accepted necessity that our meetings are virtual, it was even easier than ever to convene a seminar recently with UK and Danish colleagues to look at the Danish model of A&E; a model that is being piloted in England. (You can read more about the Danish model here.)

Underlining this spirit of international sharing and collaboration, Healthcare DENMARK will host a virtual conference in September, sharing learning on Covid in Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany, Canada and USA.

For Anne Smetana, Deputy Director, Healthcare DENMARK, there is a lot that countries can learn from each other: “The Covid-19 crisis affects all countries in the world. In this critical situation, public healthcare authorities, companies large and small and universities stand united to combine all resources to step up capacity to handle the crisis. Some examples of the extraordinary Danish initiatives, which are making a difference for Danish citizens and healthcare professionals are: stay at home – accelerated use of video consultations; safe patient pathways – fast digital notice; hospital care – robots and AI; fast and universal access to testing (national booking and results next day); tracing and exposure notification, as well as trustworthy data.”

The rapid rise of digital

The number of citizens benefiting from digital technology is on the rise. Nationally there are procured stockpiles of tech (11,000 tablet computers for care homes, 205,000 pulse oximeters and 22,000 blood pressure monitors). At KSS AHSN, we are supporting local care pathway redesign to use the kit for diabetics, COPD, Asthma, Heart Failure, Hypertension.

The AHSN Network continues to work nationally on programmes that are shared by all 15 AHSNs. These include hypertension and cardio-vascular disease (CVD), where we are building on two years’ work on Atrial Fibrillation (AF) to reduce the incidence of people suffering strokes. Our Patient Safety Collaboratives (PSCs) are doing outstanding work to support staff in care homes to spotting deterioration in the condition of residents through the RESTORE2TM methodology. We also work at regional and local levels. In KSS our Respiratory network has developed a virtual pulmonary rehab model to support patients with COPD.

Technology is a central component to a pre-frailty project in the Health Tech Accelerator that is gearing up for launch later this year. And turning to our AHSN colleagues in the South East, we see Wessex AHSN optimising MS Teams technology in care homes and Oxford leading work on point of care testing and a virtual ward pilot in Slough.

Tackling digital inequality

However, whilst many are benefiting from technology and as our reliance on virtual means of communication has increased, there is also a significant number of people for whom this doesn’t ring true. Many people are unable to communicate online, find solutions to problems using digital tools or even access essential services. This can be due to the lack of access to devices but also due to the lack of basic digital skills, resulting in the digital exclusion of certain groups and individuals. It’s an issue which pre-dates Covid, but has been brought into sharp focus because of it.

In the South East, the South East LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) has set up a Digital Skills Partnership to address this and other issues relating to digital skills. KSS AHSN has recently started supporting the working group focussed on Preventing Digital Exclusion and we are co-chairing the sub-group focussed on Access for All to help reduce the widening gap. There is an opportunity to do this through the DevicesDotNow initiative and courtesy of the Good Things Foundation, which seeks to provide basic kit such as tablets, smartphones and laptops, as well as connectivity in the form of SIMs, dongles and mobile hotspots to those who need it the most and live in the following areas: Hastings (Sussex), Thanet (Kent) and Tendring (Essex).

Whichever way you look at it

You can look back or forward, local or international, and you’ll see similar things: healthcare that is responding to long term conditions, to Covid, to the needs of our populations. And you’ll see that what was key last year remains essential to our current and future efforts: the needs of people we serve, a willingness to collaborate and the conviction that technology can help us.

Guy Boersma
Managing Director, KSS AHSN
Digital & AI Lead, The AHSN Network
Ambassador, Healthcare DENMARK