When I first entered the world of primary care as a bright-eyed young Medical Secretary 38 years ago, I quickly learned the art of juggling a huge number of responsibilities in a highly organised, but incredibly time-consuming way. There were vast swaths of paper documents, often covered in illegible hand-writing to process, file and sort – and the speed at which we worked meant that sometimes vital information resided in a colleague’s head, rather than in an accessible repository.

The seeds of change blew my way in 1989 when, as a new Practice Manager, I oversaw the implementation of a computer system across the practice.  For me, technology was new and exciting. But the obstacles in my path back then are startlingly similar to barriers faced now.

Obstacles to digital adoption

Data quality, privacy, implementation, cost, training, confidence in the system, job security fears, and resistance to change were all hurdles to overcome. Many GPs worried technology would create more problems than it solved. The unreliability of early systems didn’t allay these fears either.

In 1990 the new GP Contract came along, enabling us to forward plan and assess our funding options and opportunities, changes that hadn’t been made for many many years, and to some degree, those changes revolutionized General Practice, and made the use of IT vital, if we were to remain in profit and utilise the technology.  Of course, during the 90’s there were very few choices for General Practice IT.

A couple of the main suppliers managed to see it through to the millennium and continue to do bigger and better things throughout the 2000s, and the systems available were improving and changing at a frightening rate, just keeping up with the changes was a job in itself, hence the beginnings of IT Managers as well as Practice Managers. However,  Innovation stalled while the National Programme for IT attempted to implement one system across the NHS.  When that programme ran aground, it was with relief I saw the focus was on localised investment, with system integration and interoperability at its heart. Innovation was back on the agenda.

Since 2013, increased regulation, compliance, clinical coding requirements and integration have gone hand in hand with the explosion of clinical systems, online patient services and healthcare IT applications to maintain standards across the sector. The choice of products and services now available to alleviate pressure on primary care is welcome, but can also be dizzying.

Making the right decision for your practice

With hundreds of IT solutions available, how do you know what’s best for your practice? What will deliver the best ROI and practice efficiencies? How do you coordinate different products and services within the practice?

When does a practice management team even have time to review the options?

It can be easier to carry on with the familiar daily routines, but – the time that you spend assessing and implementing something new, could save you a great deal of time in future months, it’s just the initial shot in the dark of Business Change and all it entails that takes time and forward-thinking.

A few simple rules to get you on track

Every primary care organisation is different and will need different solutions to drive efficiencies. Still, I’ve learned from my many years’ experience that there are some universal guidelines can help you make the right digital choices, and avoid pitfalls along the way:

  • Keep it simple. If you can’t see how a system can deliver benefits straight away, it’s not going to work.
  • Make sure your digital partner meets NHS and industry standards so you know you can trust them with your data.
  • Testimonials. Speak to people who’ve used the system. Discover what they’ve enjoyed and any snags they’ve experienced along the way
  • Support. Make sure you’ll be fully supported when you need help and advice.
  • Business Change:  Examine the way your individual team members work now, and ask them to suggest changes, track the changes and progress and give feedback. Enabling your team to buy into the Business Change ethos.
  • Ensure your team understands the benefits of the proposed changes, for themselves, the Medical staff and the patients.
  • Ensure that training is adequate and that protected time is given for staff to become effective.  Make sure all staff involved are happy and ‘buying in’ to the new system and its possibilities

A last thought – For those of you old enough to remember the pink and blue cards placed in Lloyd George Folders to enable staff to pick out the diabetics, or smears due, or childhood vaccinations, think about the way that technology has enabled us to offer fantastic patient care, with working efficiencies across the board.  Would you have believed the way things are now, 35 years ago? I definitely wouldn’t have believed it.  If I need to get a list of who needs a Flu Vacc now, I can do it within 5 minutes of sitting at the computer and get the recall letters printed at the same time.   Technology moves forward at an alarming rate, and we need to keep up to take advantage of all it has to offer.

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