Has Coronavirus killed the digital strategy? Seven Key things to consider before refreshing yours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed NHS and Social Care organisations and their workforces under unprecedented pressure. Thankfully, the impressive and persistent culture of the NHS workforce and their ability to adapt has shone through and the country, quite rightly, clapped them for it.

There are however some positives emerging from the response, one of which is the much-lauded acceleration of digital technology adoption – many of which have long been coveted. This has been driven out of necessity and helped along by lower barriers to adoption including greater access to funding, lower commercial barriers and increased clinical acceptance. There has also been closer working between the NHS, Public Sector, technology suppliers and innovators to meet the challenge.

Some now believe that this progress has made pre-pandemic digital strategies invalid and that organisations should move forward with the refresh of their strategies. However, organisations should think carefully before embarking on the development of a new multi-year digital strategy in the same way they have done previously.

Below, we provide an overview of seven key things that you should consider:

1. Shorter strategic window: In the not too distant past, public sector boards were still demanding five-year strategies for IT, informatics and/or digital – which became quickly outdated. Over time this has reduced to a more manageable three-year strategic window – but for the foreseeable future even this is likely to be too long. Organisations should consider a different kind of structure for their strategies based on a vision and strategic charter, underpinned by a set of actively managed assets such as annual objectives, blueprints and delivery roadmap.

2. More complex operating environment: The response to COVID has, and will, bring integrated care closer to fruition. Not just because it has proven itself as a vital approach to managing the virus response, but out of necessity. Public health strategy must be part of the health system, population health should be taken more seriously than just for commissioning and performance management. More seriously, the NHS faces a deluge of poorly people suffering from other conditions, many more advanced than before the pandemic and a hidden population without a diagnosis. This is likely to result in hospitals needing to become focussed on truly acute services with many of the other services they provide today transitioning to community, mental health and primary care. Increased demand for Continuing Health Care (CHC) will be an ongoing theme. These multi-organisational services are costly and complex to deliver and even more so to performance manage. Barriers to change and information sharing need to be removed and new blueprints put into place.

3. Less of the new, more of the better: There is likely to be less technology to design, buy, and deploy in the next strategic window. Whilst there will of course be technical elements, the next generation of strategies will need greater focus on exploiting unused functionality, embedding existing technologies and organisational development including digital capability of the workforce, inclusion and change management.

4. Reduce inequalities: Inequality, access and inclusion is difficult to identify and measure. Combatting this was a key theme in most pre-pandemic strategies. COVID has increased society’s dependence on technology for everything from shopping to educating our children, from seeing the GP to taking a test for the virus. This has in turn increased the importance of focussing on reducing inequalities – but this will require significant thought leadership, engagement and cross organisational working.

5. Technology Assurance: In response to the pandemic, many technologies were rapidly procured and deployed to meet the challenge. Some organisations may need to develop a workstream to ratify these choices against other options, develop plans for expansion and embedding and seek to secure better post-pandemic commercial arrangements.

6. Innovation Management: Working closely with suppliers and innovators has been critical to the pandemic response and will continue to be going forward. Many national and regional level accelerator initiatives exist but managing innovation will become important to all leaders and all organisations. The Health and Public Sector are typically geared towards cost minimisation and efficiency - achieved through rigorous business justification, procurement and robust but monolithic deployment approaches. Whilst these factors will always be important embracing approaches to running innovation programmes, successful innovation requires a different mindset and capabilities – including embracing the possibility and opportunity of failure. Developing and implementing approaches to innovation management should be a key part of future digital strategies.

7. National Influence: As already reported, there is going to be significant change in legislation and national policy. For some years we have been in the strange situation where local strategies have overtaken those of the nation and its constituent bodies, which would have been rectified by the full implementation of the NHS Long Term Plan. Many of the challenges faced by the NHS and broader public sector will not be overcome without national strategy, funding and support. Thus, any new digital strategies must be adaptable in order to flex in line with the changing macro context.

Digital services in the Health & Public Sector, whether they be ICT, Information, Informatics or digital directorates will need to maintain an agile operation in the coming months and years in order to respond to the changes in health and care systems and the needs of their populations.

Organisations should consider a rolling approach utilising a lighter strategic charter bolstered by more fluid roadmaps and blueprints. The seven themes above should be considered for inclusion in your next digital strategy to ensure that we reap the benefits generated during this otherwise dark time.

Furthermore, these assets need to be developed within a wider context than before – inclusive of other organisations, stakeholders and the people they serve in order to ensure inclusion, equity collaboration and integration.