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Nick Hopkinson, CIO at Devon Partnership NHS Trust, is as dedicated to the healthcare sector as he is to the technology profession.
Having worked for the NHS for more than two decades, Hopkinson has a great vantage point from which to look back on transformational changes, current challenges and future priorities.
“Ten years ago, the technology leader was a gatekeeper of IT services,” he says.
“There has been a huge change and now, if the CIO says he or she can’t help employees access a particular service, then users have other options. If you, as the CIO, can’t provide a secure and easy way for people to work, then they will find another way to make things happen – and that can be problematic.”
Hopkinson is directing his attention to transformation at the trust, which was established in 2001 and supports 18,000 people across Devon and Torbay. Alongside other health and social care providers in the area, the trust works to support the recovery of people with mental health needs.
Its IT strategy is a crucial element of that approach. The aim, says Hopkinson, is to provide systems that allow clinicians to work in a more agile and mobile way with the people who use the trust’s services.
Hopkinson’s current status as IT leader is in sharp contrast to the early stages of his career. He dropped out of university aged 19 and became a junior programmer for the West Midlands Regional Health Authority.
“I wouldn’t advise dropping out of university,” he says, referring to best-practice lessons for other would-be IT leaders.
“At the start, I didn’t have much of a background – I just knew I was interested in IT. My career has been about taking opportunities and cultivating relationships.”
Project management role
Hopkinson started on the helpdesk before moving through the ranks, taking on a range of responsibilities, including a project management role at the NHS Information Authority.
He moved to Devon in 1995 and, after fulfilling broader account management roles across south-west England, took a director-level position in the trust in 2002, where he headed up IT before the formal CIO position was created last year.
“We recognised as a trust that being digital is about much more than running an IT department,” he says. “It’s about having someone at senior level who helps the business make the right decisions.
“We looked carefully at the role of technology in the organisation and thought about how the trust would try to grow in the future. The rise of digital technology was seen as playing a huge role in the organisation’s continuing transformation.”
Hopkinson’s first year as CIO has been busy, but he is enjoying the challenge and his team have a number of key priorities. Top of his list is a move towards agility and a desire to change how information is used.
Patient-centric view of information
Hopkinson says promoting agility can be tough, especially as the concept is less understood in the NHS than it is in the private sector.
The good news is that he is encouraged by the reaction of people across the organisation. Hopkinson says the trust can draw on some capable talent and is keen to use agility to bring that ability to fruition.
“Success is rarely about technology and almost always about the people,” he says.
“The most sophisticated systems and services will not deliver great results if the people aren’t trained, too. We’re looking to modernise services so that our care staff cut the amount of time they spend on non-clinical activities.”
“Success is rarely about technology and almost always about the people”
Nick Hopkinson, Devon Partnership NHS Trust
Examples might include apps that allow staff to send information back to the office via mobile devices. “We want our clinical staff to spend more time in front of patients,” says Hopkinson. “What we’re talking about isn’t an IT programme – it’s a change, and that project is being led by our clinical specialists.”
Real change in the NHS
Achieving real change in the NHS will be no straightforward task, with healthcare IT often viewed as a problem child. The NHS National Programme for IT, for example, has been notoriously difficult and received a lot of media attention. Such high-profile projects can make it hard for executives to successfully argue the case for change.
But there is now a mandate from government that calls for all NHS organisations to be paper-free at the point of care by 2020, and ensure all systems are interoperable across both health and social care, so trusts have little choice but to change.
Hopkinson says interoperability is one of his main concerns. Health and social care data can be assigned to various unconnected strands and systems. He says CIOs in the health sector need to think beyond the confines of their own organisation and create a more joined-up approach.
“At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for the same people, but we often have independent accountabilities,” he says. “We must strive to present a patient-centric view of information. We need to aim for interoperability, so that information held in silos is realigned, secured and its use driven by the wishes of the patient.”
Developing great talent
Hopkinson is not solely focused on the effective use of information. Professional development is another priority area for the trust. The IT skills gap remains a key issue for CIOs, particularly executives in the public sector who must compete for labour with cash-rich private enterprises.
“We want people to think of working for the NHS as a career rather just another job,” he says, referring to the trust’s determination to develop its talent. “If you’ve got great people, it helps the trust to develop, but it also helps you to retain and attract other talent.”
Nick Hopkinson, Devon Partnership NHS Trust
From a personal perspective, Hopkinson sees the idea of a team as crucial. People who work well with others feel like part of an integrated and successful organisation. One way for him and his team to feel important is to focus on the main aims of the trust.
“Our job is to help people recover,” he says. “The way we do that in the IT department is through the delivery of great digital services that help people on the front line to improve the care they provide. Care is our main business priority, not IT. Working for the NHS matters.”
While Hopkinson is eager to stress the crucial role of digital transformation, he also acknowledges that a lot of his work as CIO involves operational matters. “You simply have to keep the lights on,” he says, pointing out that business continuity and resilience must be maintained to the highest possible standard.
“Our innovation often involves finding ways to keep our services running and up to date,” he says. “As we move towards a more agile workforce, you need a different type of support. The increased use of mobile devices across the trust means we must think about flexibility and service levels.”
Hopkinson says there is also a “big push” at regional level to ensure the trust’s work is co-ordinated. He regularly meets up with his executive counterparts at other healthcare organisations and related academic institutions.
The aim is to continue to find ways to use technology and develop new services for citizens, he says. For example, the trust is taking part in the Galileo e-prescribing project, which involves a consortium of trusts and healthcare organisations across south Devon.
At a local level, Hopkinson’s team have spent the past few months piloting the use of clinical apps on tablets. Community staff across the trust are already working smarter, thanks to mobile devices bought with funds from the government’s Nursing Technology Fund. Hopkinson aims to push further innovative developments in mobile working throughout 2016.
Read more NHS CIO interviews
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One example is using devices and apps to provide secure video consultation between nurses and the people who rely on the trust’s services. “The technology provides an extra tool,” says Hopkinson. “It could help nurses reduce the amount of travel they undertake but, more importantly, it could also lead to increased levels of care.”
The key to the success of the cloud-based video initiative is information integrity, particularly with regard to patient data, says Hopkinson. “When you’re dealing with information, you need to be very clear about the potential benefits of the solution you’re providing,” he adds.
“The word ‘cloud’ can scare people because the consequences of a wrong move are so severe. Confidentiality and security are absolutely paramount to the IT department. People across the trust come to us and suggest services and apps that they want to use, but we have to be very careful. We can’t afford to give anything less than the best.”
Increasing the quality of care
The required focus on great technology can be a challenge in the current cash-constrained environment. Hopkinson recognises that every pound that is attributed to IT – and, therefore, not spent on direct healthcare – must lead to big increases in the quality of patient care.
Nick Hopkinson, Devon Partnership NHS Trust
“We couldn’t make those decisions without the input of our senior colleagues,” he says. “As technology professionals, we need to work beyond the walls of the traditional IT department and become part of wider business planning decisions, so that the importance of digital transformation is articulated and understood.”
As Hopkinson and his peers continue to hone this relationship over the next few years, he expects developments in a number of key areas. “I would expect to see an organisation that is mobile in the fullest sense of the term – we want equipment that works for our clinical staff, rather than an IT team that prescribes what tools they should use,” he says.
“I also want the trust to be able to get real value from information, so that we can run services as effectively as possible and to provide great services. It’s all about working out how we, as a trust, can partner with other experts to continue to increase the quality of care.”