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Technology can help nurses improve patient care

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Ros Moore on why health informatics and technologies will help enable a quality-driven NHS

I must confess to being a passionate advocate of technology and informatics in health care - and a firm believer in its transformational qualities.

However, it is not just the clever ‘kit’ or the mind-blowing technology that excite me - it is what they can do for patients and to improve the working lives of nurses.

As one of the pioneers of NHS Direct, I saw straightforward telecommunications and technology empowering and enabling nurses to care for thousands of patients.

I was clear then - as I am now - that technology should not and could not replace the human element nor undermine the values that define nursing. On the contrary, I came to believe that informatics and technologies would in fact secure the future of the profession.

‘We need a critical mass of nurses who understand the effect that health informatics and technologies can have on quality of care - and promote their use’

Most of us will have experienced the dramatic impact of technology on our daily lives. At home one evening, I was booking flights on the internet, my teenage daughter was sending photographs to friends via mobile phone while updating Facebook, and my son was doing his e-learning homework.

After a while, my son asked what it was like in ‘olden days’ without computers, adding sagely: ‘It must have been horrible - the answer to everything is on the internet.’

He is right. Technology has changed how we buy goods and services, how we work, and most significantly perhaps, how we communicate with people and organisations.

Yet the NHS has been slow in getting off the technology starting blocks.

However, with NHS Connecting for Health and its partners landing major elements of the national informatics and technologies programmes, the green shoots of technological transformation are now springing up throughout the NHS.

The national programme for IT has a key role in helping the NHS meet the demands of an ageing population, a pressured workforce and an increasing prevalence of lifestyle-related long-term conditions.

It will support the development of new models of care and working practices with the potential to turn wasteful spending into productive health returns. It will also be a key enabler in the delivery of Lord Darzi’s vision for a quality-driven NHS.

Large numbers of patients and NHS staff are now benefiting from the programme.

The Picture Archiving and Communication System (PACS) is operating throughout the NHS enabling quicker and more accurate diagnoses for patients.

HealthSpace accounts, available to anyone over 16, are engaging the public in their own health. Take-up of summary care records is growing, with over 280,000 created so far. And the electronic prescription and choose and book systems are rapidly bedding down.

These and other innovations from the programme must become mainstream in nursing practice and care as quickly as possible if we are to address some of the major challenges facing the profession.

They will help to make nursing more attractive to a generation brought up with technology. They will help improve patient safety, tackling some of the gaps and obstacles in care that have such devastating effects on people’s health and experience.

They will help provide the convenient and personalised care envisioned for primary and community care in the Next Stage Review, giving us the tools to empower patients and nurses to work as partners in care.

Finally, they will be fundamental to supporting and improving quality systems, providing a degree of transparency and accountability that has been lacking before.

All this should help renew public trust and confidence in the profession that has been dented by reported failures in care.

However, the profession must be ready. We need a critical mass of nurses who are able to understand the effect that health informatics and technologies can have on quality, and promote their use. This is a big task, given that many nurses are yet to see routine use of common technologies such as portable tablets, webcams and video conferencing.

There are also huge questions around culture, education and inclusion. Nursing is a multigenerational workforce and, for many of its members, information technology will be like ‘a second language’ learnt later in life; its use will always be accompanied by some degree of anxiety.

That is why nurse leaders must take steps to embed technology firmly in education, in supervision and mentorship, and in all parts of workforce and performance development.

Ensuring that health informatics and technologies will fulfil their potential requires unity in creating an e-enabled profession while remaining alert to the inevitable challenges it brings.

Health IT is about quality, safety and innovation - it is not an end in itself. Its development and use must always be patient centred, clinically owned and led, and aligned with local systems and aspirations.

As the chief nursing officer says, there is hardly a treatment intervention or health programme in which nurses or midwives do not play a part. As the primary users of health informatics and technologies, nurses must begin to play a leading role in driving forward this agenda.

Ros Moore is director of nursing at NHS Connecting for Health

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