Over Christmas, the Office for National Statistics released illuminating new evidence of the social impact of coronavirus on the UK population.
Included was data on home working in the UK, showing that 56% of the working population said their employer had recently asked them to work from home.
Home working culture has been super-charged by the pandemic, and the public sector has been at the forefront of the shift. For some organisations, and particularly those in the health sector, making the move to home working was a business critical decision with direct implications for frontline service delivery.
A challenging environment
Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust provides local general hospital and community services to around 260,000 people in Walsall and the surrounding areas.
Its estate includes Walsall Manor Hospital and a 60-site community health service including health centres, GP surgeries, and a palliative care centre. The services are delivered by a staff of 4,400, and responsibility for IT falls to Craig Cox, End User Computer Service Delivery Manager and Ibrar Hashmi, Digital Technology Project Manager.
When Covid-19 arrived, the trust asked as many staff as possible to work from home. This started in phases, with the most vulnerable being sent home first, followed by other staff on a rota basis. However, strict security measures meant that staff were not able to use any of their own devices to carry out NHS work.
The team at Walsall Healthcare realised they needed to increase and enhance their digital capability to help staff communicate safely and effectively.
Craig Cox explains the trust’s requirement: "Security and patient privacy is paramount and we could not risk any breaches. In addition, personal computers would not have the relevant software or necessary VDI licensing and so we urgently needed to procure software, laptops, coding stations and more."
To help source its urgent requirements, the trust turned to Crown Commercial Service’s Technology Products and Associated Services (TePAS) framework.
The framework offers a flexible way to buy IT hardware, off-the-shelf software and associated services to suit any organisation’s technology needs.
The trust awarded one supplier a contract to design a cost effective and professional AV solution.
Ibrar Hashmi says the trust were initially surprised by how far the suggested solution diverged from their expectations: ‘We believed we were working with the ideal solution for our organisation.
‘However, once they started to get into the detail of what exactly it was we wanted from our AV project and took the time to understand our specific needs, they recommended something else entirely.’
‘They advised using Microsoft Teams Room solution instead of the older set up, which essentially does exactly the same thing but at a quarter of the cost.’
The solution would ensure that the hospital’s clinical and management teams were able to conduct remote meetings across disparate locations while the pandemic was ongoing.
Working closely with the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust team, the team helped the trust to update their IT estate to a level that is fit for today’s needs and requirements. The supplier sent laptops to a central location at the trust where, after setting them up with the relevant emails and log in details, trust staff were called in to sign for and collect their individual kit.
They also recommended a range of additional products, which completed the AV package to provide a simple to use but effective solution for virtual collaboration.
Craig Cox explained: "We were well aware of the constraints they were facing when it came to the supply network.
"However, with its support, we managed to procure 500 laptops and get 80% of our staff working from home in just over 2 and a half weeks - an amazing achievement."
Ibrar added: "They advised using Microsoft Teams’ Room solution instead of the older set up, which essentially does exactly the same thing but at a quarter of the cost."
Prior to having the AV solution, personnel were having to cram into a room that made it impossible to follow social distancing guidelines, as this was the only way that staff could access important meetings.
To address this, large format displays and high-quality speakers are being installed across a number of meeting rooms, enabling staff to space out and practice social distancing when physical meetings resume. Staff will be able to meet safely and connect to any of their colleagues in their own trust, in the UK, or even internationally.
"The recommended AV solution is totally seamless and works brilliantly."
Craig Cox believes that the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the provision of care.
"If there is a silver lining to this crisis it is that the NHS virtual clinic is here to stay.
"Having seen the benefits and cost savings which are critical in healthcare, the trust won’t be going back to the way things were. Patients themselves have found the process easy to use and can speak to their medical team from a smartphone or PC.
"Communication has improved threefold thanks to the solution. It has made an enormous difference to the way we can all talk to each other. Having staff working safely from home helped reduce footfall on premise, minimise the impact of the virus and genuinely saved lives."
Virtual clinics offer advantages to both medical staff and patients:
- medical staff don’t have to waste time travelling from one trust site to another to meet patients, so can see more patients
- staff now have much more flexibility to work from any trust location
- clinic times are not constrained by having to wait for the relevant rooms to become available on the trust estate
- staff are able to enjoy a better work life balance and this is particularly important for those with children
- patients don’t have to travel to clinics which could be miles from where they live
- patients don’t have to wait around for hours to see a doctor or nurse