Integrated care needs investment in IT skills: an interview with Natalie Bateman

Integrated care needs investment in IT skills: an interview with Natalie Bateman

Person-centred care has long been an ambition for the UK. The technology is ready to support the vision but an underinvestment in IT could spell further delays to making it happen, Natalie Bateman, head of health, social care and local government at techUK tells Highland Marketing.

Technology in the NHS has had an indifferent history. There is no doubt that healthcare is a complex industry in which to deliver IT-enabled change. Couple that with the drive to integrate technology systems with a local government sector with its own idiosyncrasies, then you can start to see the size of the challenge that awaits for integrated care.

The ‘information revolution’ is recognised by the Five Year Forward View and National Information Board’s (NIB) Framework for Action: Personalised Health and Care 2020, as facilitating the move towards bringing health and social care closer together – but investment is required to make it happen.

Trade association techUK is playing its part. The organisation – which was known as Intellect until 2013 – helps to shape key public policy issues for IT. By representing over 300 technology companies operating in the healthcare and local government space (and over 850 in total), it acts as a strong voice for UK technology. Speaking about its health and social care programme, Bateman says integration is very much front of mind for its members.

A recent focus has been on interoperability, a key enabler for integrated care. A techUK report outlined key principles that should be applied to interoperability standards to enable information to interchange with systems securely and ensure public services are delivered in a seamless way.

“The current interoperability standards aren’t fit for purpose, because they don’t meet the aspirations of being  an integrated system,” she says.

To overcome this, techUK will create an ‘interoperability charter’ setting out a series of commitments for suppliers to sign up to, with the aim of making interoperability more appropriate now, and for the future. It is not restricted to IT suppliers though.

“It also includes commitments for the NHS community and local government. It’s only going to change if all the different parties are all pulling in the same direction. We really think if we can get full support on the charter, and actually see what people are committing to on these pledges, that will be a step change in terms of integration.”

Skills needed for change

Before integrated care can happen, however, Bateman points out that inconsistent and insufficient funding for care providers is one of the initial challenges for technology adoption in each sector: “Once you do have funding, it’s about not seeing the technology as a high cost, high risk choice which is sometimes the case for the NHS and local government.”

This perception translates to a reluctance for people at the coalface to make investment decisions for the long-term, especially in healthcare. “Given that the [healthcare] system is so complex and has been subjected to quite significant reorganisation and restructure in the past, we see that the people in these organisations do not have the skills and knowledge to plan for the mid-to-long-term.”

Bateman says that “equipping those decision makers the right skills, knowledge and tools to become informed customers” will help support informed procurement decisions and encourage them to work closely with “suppliers and partners and collaborators”.

An ideal scenario for Bateman would be for care providers to engage “with the technology supplier early on and be able to ask the right questions because they have got the skill and knowledge base to do so. That will then ensure they really see value for money when making investments.”

It’s no surprise that Bateman’s employer has its own ideas to make this happen. “We are looking to develop an online platform that will provide a holistic view of the supplier market, including their skills and capabilities as an offering to the decision makers in health and social care.”

‘Huge potential’ of mobile

One area of technology that is attracting interest from care providers is mobile technology, or mHealth as it is becoming more commonly known. It is increasing its profile as a natural link between both health and social care, given the portable nature of frontline staff. Bateman agrees and says there is “huge potential” to provide staff with the opportunity to be more accessible to patients.

“It is also really useful for patients to be cared for and treated and even diagnosed in their home or community rather than having to go into primary or secondary care setting. There is a real opportunity there, especially as more and more people have a mobile, smartphone or some kind of tablet – we really need to encourage mobile adoption,” says Bateman.

Where will we be in five years’ time and will integration become a reality? “I am sure we’ll see progress in terms of the digital health agenda” assures Bateman. “I think we’ll see integration between service providers in health and social care across the different settings, and more importantly a better data flow of patient information so it follows the patient pathway.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Bateman predicts the IT industry will first need to make progress on some fundamental issues in order to prosper. Referring to interoperability Bateman says: “We’ve really got to get some of the foundations right to deliver transformative care. But I think rather than seeing a step change within five years’ time, the really exciting changes will probably come beyond that once those foundations are in place.”

Where do communications fit in?

A communications professional by trade, Bateman’s career spans healthcare and social care only – something that was no mistake.

“I enjoy being able to work on something where you can really see a change and impact on people, and ultimately it’s about helping people to improve health and wellbeing,” says Bateman.

“I started out in communications so it’s all I’ve ever known. It really excites me because I see it as the red thread that runs through any business and brings everything together in a compelling narrative. That’s really powerful because to get it right you can be hugely successful as a company and as a brand, but you do tend to live or die by a good communications strategy.”

Bateman gives a clear message for technology businesses looking to undertake communications activities: “Be true to your company’s ethos and brand in the message you are conveying. Believe in what you are communicating because if you do not, your audience will not believe in what you are saying.”

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