Managers in the NHS need greater freedom to access web resources if they are going to use it to make improvements for staff and patients, according to experts working with NHS North West.
Speaking at the BCS Health Informatics Conference today, Roger Marlow, who is working on a project that aims to accelerate the use of the internet at the NHS, said, "A typical NHS manager has less freedom on the web than a Chinese farmer. We talk about the 'great firewall of China', but at least the Chinese farmer could set up a blog if he wanted to."
Marlow is from Health2Works, which is working with NHS North West on its Web 2.0 accelerator project. The project has produced 20 prototype websites or tools spanning everything from disease prevention to increasing productivity and debating health policy. The tools include a paid-for Google ad that appears when patients Google their symptoms, advertising the relevant NHS department or service to try to prevent people relying on inaccurate information.
Marlow, who is working on the project with colleague Steve Pashley, said, "The role of IT in the NHS is unclear. We are still puzzled why [the web] has not happened at the grass roots level and why the NHS is behind on this. There are enormous opportunities for web-related productivity gains - it is a case of just doing it."
He advises anyone trying a similar project to avoid complex specifications. "People do not seem to know what they want until they have seen it, so we have had to just jump in and invent something. Once you can see it you can discuss it, but specifications are worthless."
The accelerator project started with a brainstorming workshop with the relevant group of users - clinicians, patients or managers. The first eight workshops in October 2009 led to a total of 260 ideas for tools. This boiled down to 30 propositions, of which 20 were turned into prototypes. "The process needs to be quick and low-cost. Our development on this has been very informed by the agile development process," said Marlow.
Productivity tools include a site that helps children to practice their speech therapy exercises at home, replacing a process that is currently paper-based. Another system enables pre-operation assessments to be carried out online instead of requiring the patient to visit the hospital. On the community side, a site connecting parents whose disabled children have not yet been diagnosed provides them with support, while others collect ideas from staff on how to save money or opinions from patients on NHS policy.
Despite the web being an increasingly integral part of everyday life for many people, Marlow said the NHS would not get the full benefits unless resources are freed up for staff. "The web will give patients more power and influence and make life easier for frontline managers and clinicians. We cannot use a lot of fantastic resources - we need to be connected. Hopefully all these projects will give us a great reason to open up the doors.
Photo: Rex Features