Digital transformation in community health services is improving patient care but needs stronger national backing

A mobile workforce and a focus on delivering care close to home means community providers have been making rapid progress in digital development.

1 December 2021

With a mobile workforce and a focus on delivering care close to and in patients’ homes, community providers have been making rapid progress in developing digital services for the public.

A new report published by the Community Network, which is hosted by the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, highlights how community health services have been delivering better care for patients and service users through remote monitoring, virtual consultations and self-management tools. The report is informed by case studies and a survey of community service leaders.

One organisation leading the way in digital transformation in the community is Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust which has set up a new digital health centre that includes remote monitoring and virtual consultations. This is being delivered in collaboration with Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council’s community response service, and the North West Ambulance Service.

Managed and run by nurses the centre manages urgent care GP call handling, streaming calls to appropriate services as required, and has brought in enhanced technology to care homes across the area. The scheme has led to a marked reduction in emergency attendances, emergency admissions and use of acute beds and resulted in fewer GP, ambulance and community team callouts to care homes.

Elsewhere West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership has put together digital strategy for the integrated care system highlighting how digital tools can be used to promote health and wellness and reduce inequalities.  The aim is to allow patients to use digital channels to access services and monitor their own health.

While the report, Digital transformation in community health services, highlights many examples of best practice, it finds that a number of systemic issues have dogged digital roll-out in community services. These include insufficient capital and revenue funding for the technological transformation needed – an issue which is particularly stark for community interest companies.

Community health service leaders warn that a lack of co-ordinated national support and funding could prevent further progress from being made. They want to see a renewed impetus and targeted funding from Government, as well as from local systems to bring about further and long-lasting digital transformation.

While nearly nine in 10 community service leaders said their organisation had been able to access allocated capital or revenue funding for digital transformation in the past five years only one in 10 agreed their organisation had sufficient nationally allocated capital funding to support them to make the investments in digital they need.

The report also highlights the need to improve the process under which funding is allocated. Multiple survey respondents described receiving funding very late in the financial year, meaning that it had to be used in a ‘horrible rush,’ or in a way that led to ‘uncertainty and tactical solutions,’ preventing longer-term planning and investment in larger digital improvement projects.

Andrew Ridley, chair of the Community Network and chief executive of Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust said: “Many community providers are making great progress when it comes to using digital and new technologies to improve care for the public. 

“This progress needs to continue if we are to respond to the rising demand for care that community services are facing. This will require more national prioritisation and targeted funding to unleash the full potential of community providers.”