Friday, 7th August 2020

A word on NHSX: ignore blockchain at your peril, it could revolutionise the NHS

By René Seifert, co-founder of TrueProfile.io.

Much of the recent buzz around NHSX has been with regard to its role in developing a contact tracing app to tackle COVID-19. Pandemic aside however, the government’s flagship digital transformation unit has yet to clearly define its position on blockchain and when or if it intends to integrate it into its plans for harnessing the latest technologies for the benefit of the healthcare sector.

This is where we at TrueProfile.io believe that overlooking the potential of blockchain could result in a missed opportunity for the programme, as the hugely transformational technology has the capacity to address and eradicate a range of longstanding and pressing challenges facing the UK’s healthcare sector.

What is NHSX and why does it matter?

NHSX is a joint unit of government, bringing together teams from the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement to drive forward digital transformation across the health and social care sector.

At its very core is the premise that technology has the capacity to help the NHS meet its most pressing strategic challenges, such as improving outcomes, addressing workforce shortages and increasing productivity. This is reflected in its ‘five missions’, which are to reduce the burden on clinicians and staff to let them focus on patients; to give people the tools to access information and services directly; to ensure clinical information can be safely accessed wherever needed; to help improve patient safety in the NHS; and to improve NHS productivity through digital technology.

Despite these bold ambitions, very little has been said around the role that blockchain - one of the most innovative technologies available today - could play in the government’s ongoing attempt to drive forward digital transformation in the health and social care sectors.

Could blockchain play a role?

For context, a blockchain can be best defined as a shared, distributed database which records transactions. Each transaction is added as a block and is stored, decentralised in the chain. Importantly, this means that no central party has control over its content, and nobody can tamper with the records because every member has to agree to its validity and can check the history of record changes.

When it comes to healthcare, this technology has previously been mentioned in the context of patients’ medical records, as it can provide absolute proof and confidence that they cannot be altered. This means that individuals can stay in control of and have access to their personal health records and could grant or deny permission for others to access it, whether they be clinicians, researchers or even commercial organisations.

However, even in this context, blockchain has not yet been discussed in relation to NHSX. This is surprising, and there is an abundance of other use cases across the NHS where blockchain can make a difference and help the sector address some of its most pressing strategic challenges.

Reducing the burden on NHS workers

One area where blockchain must be a consideration is in reducing workforce shortages, particularly if the programme is to reach its target of reducing the burden on clinicians and staff.

Recent reports suggest that staff shortages in the NHS are expected to grow to almost 250,000 by 2030 from 100,000 in 2018 [1]. This is where blockchain can make an enormous difference if integrated into the NHSX programme. Utilising the technology can help the sector streamline its recruitment process and connect with healthcare professionals from across the world faster and more securely.

The current NHS recruitment process can take anywhere up to six months, particularly when it comes to hiring medical professionals from abroad and verifying their credentials. However, if the NHSX programme were to consider implementing a blockchain-enabled professional document verification platform, this would enable candidates to securely upload and verify private documents, such as passport or university certificates, providing them with a form of portable credentials. Consequently, where it might have taken the NHS anything up to six months to verify a candidates’ credentials, NHS recruiters and healthcare regulators will be able to easily view and verify candidates’ credentials against the blockchain in one fell swoop.

As a result, this provides the NHS with the tools to significantly reduce the time-to-hire of medical professionals through giving NHS recruiters access to a bank of pre-screened and authenticated candidates who are ready to move where they are needed most. For a sector that has been inundated with workforce shortages for a number of years, utilising technologies like blockchain to plug any gaps seems like a no brainer, surely?

Brexit only adds to blockchains case

The case for integrating blockchain in the NHSX programme to address skill shortages is made all the more the stronger when Brexit is thrown into the mix.

As Brexit takes off, the NHS is expected to close the growing skills gap across the health and social care sector by opening the door to an influx of healthcare professionals from across the globe. By integrating blockchain into any digital transformation efforts, such as through using a blockchain-enabled document verification platform, the NHS will be able to eliminate the continual churn of verification requests every time a healthcare professional applies for a new role.

Ultimately, this will ensure that the sector will be able to swiftly take advantage of the expected inflow of healthcare professionals post-Brexit and avoid further staffing bottlenecks.

Ignore blockchain at your peril

Skill and staff shortages have been a burden on the healthcare sector for many years which have been further exacerbated by COVID-19. Coupling this with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the sector is likely to be put under further pressure.

With emerging technologies, such as blockchain beginning to be innovatively applied across different industries, it seems that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. However, the NHSX unit has yet to realise the benefits this technology can bring, which is something that simply has to change if it is to realise its goal of reducing the burden on clinicians and staff and improving NHS productivity through digital technology.

[1] https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/research/closing-the-gap-key-areas-for-action-on-the-health-and-care-workforce

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