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08.06.20

Sonia Patel: Moving the dial towards digital transformation

An interview with Sonia Patel, NHSX’s new Chief Information Officer

“It just shows, with the right conditions and a shared goal, what we can achieve as the NHS.”

Sonia Patel is talking about 'NHS Book a virtual visit', a bespoke technology solution providing remote visiting options to patients and their loved ones across London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, which came about through a combination of out-of-the-box thinking, crowdsourcing and a social media appeal.

Having identified a need to be able to support connecting loved ones in a new manner once visitation became restricted because of Covid-19, Sonia and her team began looking into potential solutions. After an offer of technology from a charity couldn’t be scaled across the whole enterprise and existing communication and video conferencing technologies lacked core functionalities needed to meet connectivity and logistical demands, the focus shifted to a custom offering for the relatively small-scale project.

Scalability was key but this wasn’t a whole new platform the trust was looking for. Instead, it was simply an additional capability, allowing the team to prioritise a small, nimble offering.

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Sonia Patel, NHSX Chief Information Officer: “It just shows, with the right conditions and a shared goal, what we can achieve as the NHS.”
 

In some ways, the solution was stumbled upon almost incidentally and yet stands as a testament to the potential of the tech community if engaged with the right way. As Sonia explains: “It was one evening I thought, let’s drive this through crowdsourcing. I put out a call to action on Twitter and within I think less than an hour I had a few introductions made to me and realised there was potential for small SME companies to help.

“Within 48 hours, we had an alpha product which gave us sight of what was possible, given the existing technology and meeting the [Data Protection Act] standards. Two weeks later, we had it out on all the wards.”

That rapid development process was a result of the conditions being right. Actual need was driving the process rather than future-planning and that allowed for some flexibility on the application from both sides. 'NHS Book a virtual visit' wasn’t required to be a perfect solution, but rather a workable one which could be delivered upon immediately.

READ MORE: NHS technology sees 38% surge in usage during coronavirus outbreak

READ MORE: NHSX partnering with tech firms to help isolated people stay connected

Yet, just because of the urgency with which the technology was developed, Sonia didn’t feel it would outgrow its usefulness in life after Covid-19, with her predicting some wards to likely be interested in at least keeping the offer available. For those in neonatal departments, it has allowed the mother who wants to keep more in touch with loved ones capable of doing so, while where available the Wi-Fi calling functionality has equally made it a powerful tool for those with overseas relatives. Sonia and her team suspect they’ll find new user cases of the technology’s worth long into life after Covid-19.

And it’s not just this particular solution, either. While Sonia was keen to praise the hard work done by Made Tech in realising this technology, she also referenced the growing number of other offers in the pipeline, with a belief the NHS was in a position where it didn’t have to pick and choose only one. She explained: “In terms of different companies, I think there’s a big enough market given the size of the NHS to support multiple providers rather than a single provider.”

That sort of excitement towards innovative technology solutions and a wide, open market for potential providers fits keenly into Sonia’s visions as she steps into her new role as Chief Information Officer at NHSX. With a desire to build a vibrant, thriving CIO community, Sonia explained her desire to “look at how we can accelerate and stabilise digital transformation in the NHS” as she and her new NHSX colleagues work to baseline and strategise across the country, understanding what the next fundamental building blocks are needed from a national point of view.

Exciting times lie ahead for digital transformation in the NHS, with Sonia a key part, but it’s crucial that never detracts from what has always been the health service’s strongest asset: the people. Sonia put it succinctly and powerfully into words: “The NHS has done a wonderful job being able to respond to Covid-19 and that’s because of the people who make the NHS.

“It’s all about our people and that’s not just our staff. That’s our staff, our patients and our visitors and how we all collectively work together to support one another.”

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