Future health series: The tech that’s transformed the NHS

As the NHS prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary this summer, we ask our clinical consultants, Fiona Kirk and Janine Thomas, to share their views on the technology that’s transformed it. Exploring the technological evolution the NHS has taken over more than seven decades…

June 2, 2023

The original smart device for health comms 

Now considered a technological relic of the 1980s, the role pagers played across the NHS was nothing short of transformational. 

The relationship between pager and clinician is a long standing one too. According to the Department of Health and Social Care, in 2019 the NHS was still using around 130,00 pagers before being phased out completely.  

Janine Thomas: When I started nursing in 1990 the use of bleeps was standard practice. No one had a smartphone, and it was later still before consultants carried them around – in fact, it was still rare in the late 00s.

Pagers were useful because it meant you could get someone to see your patient more quickly and ask questions too. Of course, there was always chaos at doctors’ rotation because all of a sudden everyone had new numbers. 

As a nurse in charge of post-op patients, pagers were really a godsend. If you needed to act at speed, if someone was deteriorating, a quick call to the switchboard would usually get you a timely response or a visit to the ward. 

Fiona Kirk: It surprises many patients to hear that pagers were still being used within the NHS up until a few years ago. Pagers provided a solution to a problem the NHS had, but they were used far beyond their shelf life.  

The evolution of pagers was always going to be to alerting systems that send a message directly to staff via a mobile device. It helps level up communication, providing the ability to review the alert, see the response, as well as being able to review an audit trail of a clinical scenario.

A new generation of old generation technology 

While some forms of technology, once considered mainstays within the NHS, have been replaced through the fast pace of digital innovation such as pagers and fax machines, others have evolved to take on new life. Take for example the evolution of the once simple alarm between patients and clinicians - the nurse call system. 

Fiona Kirk: Integrated nurse call systems are an amazing leap forward. They now not only allow a patient to have a two-way conversation with the nursing staff, but they’re also changing how a ward team works.

Innovation game-changers 

Digital transformation across healthcare has accelerated significantly in the last decade and especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. But what do our clinical consultants feel have been true tech game-changers? 

Janine Thomas: For me, that’s digital radiology and portable x-ray machines. 

The benefits are significant; not having to move the patient from the ward and not losing folders and films and being able to process images faster.

CPOE (Computerised Physician Order Entry) doing away with forms for tests means the forms aren’t misplaced and they’re legible. 

I also think that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been really useful in tracking hospital equipment, there’s nothing worse than needing a pump for IVs or a low air loss bed and not being able to locate one. RFID has had some success in improving patient safety too – particularly in high-vulnerability areas like maternity and paediatrics. 

Fiona Kirk: The use of virtual media for patient appointments and consultations is my game-changer. 

Patients don’t have to travel to the hospital to wait to be seen and can have a one-to-one chat with a doctor or nurse specialist from their home. It means only those patients who need to be in hospital are – time is used more efficiently for both clinician and patient. 

Also, the use of virtual meetings for medical and nursing teams within MDTs has evolved and enables many clinicians to discuss a patient, review diagnostic investigations and plan best treatment pathways. This enables prompt treatments with potential improved outcomes, this may also support some of the waiting list challenges in many specialities. 

Overcoming health-tech hurdles 

The NHS has a long history of pioneering innovation, but not without having to face a few technological hiccups along the way. We ask Fiona and Janine what they feel are the biggest challenges the NHS needs to overcome.  

Fiona Kirk: I believe that one of the main challenges the NHS faces is achieving interoperability. The NHS uses a wide range of different systems and technologies, which can make it difficult to share data and information between different departments and organisations. This can hinder progress rather than enable it. 

Janine Thomas: Solution-focussed digital data workflow between health and social care. There is a bit of a misconception by the public that all the services are joined up and that their information is being shared today in a far more sophisticated way than it is. 

There are some really great examples of good practice, but there isn’t a standard approach. We should be able to develop apps that help patients and their caregivers see what is happening as they approach discharge, much like we can with hotel booking and airline management systems. Knowing when you are going home, how you are travelling, who will meet you at home, any services that have been put in place, when your appointments will be and if your medication is ready could all streamline the discharge process and drive-up confidence for all.  

The use of virtual media for patient appointments and consultations is my game-changer.
Fiona Kirk
Clinical Consultant, Ascom UK

About our clinical consultants

Fiona Kirk’s career started with 20 years in the NHS as a ward sister in a high acuity neurosurgical ward in Liverpool and a midwife in Durham, before joining transfusion diagnostics specialist, Quotient, and medical device brands Medela UK and Molnlycke Health Care.  

Janine Thomas is a registered nurse. She’s a clinical informatics nurse specialist, having previously worked with Wolverhampton City Primary Care Trust and AGFA Healthcare UK. 


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