Infrastructure directors and practice leaders are facing a productivity problem and have been challenged with saving time, money and more lives. Diane Barnes, senior business manager and healthcare specialist at business solutions provider Brother UK, outlines what tech is helping the sector to make those improvements quickly.

The National Audit Office (NAO) recently advocated for smaller, better targeted projects to modernise IT systems in areas like healthcare, as part of a broader vision to save the public sector at least £20 billion.

NHS hospitals will be familiar with the drag on efficiency caused by legacy tech, and how large-scale plans to overhaul IT systems have struggled to get lift-off.

Reflecting on such challenges, the NAO’s chief Gareth Davies has called for tech improvements to focus on ‘dolphins, not whales’. That means investing in smaller, more manageable projects, rather than the ‘gigantic, overambitious attempts to change the whole world with one IT system’.

There are processes that sap staff efficiency that can be solved immediately with tech that’s affordable and easy to implement. The integration of labelling technology in healthcare is a good example of how targeted IT modernisation can deliver efficiencies and productivity gains.

So how can clinical and infrastructure directors make an immediate start in reaping back some of the £20bn that it can direct to improving its quality of care?

Reducing errors and improving care

Labelling is one such area where significant gains can be made, even though it’s an investment that may not immediately spring to mind.

From prescriptions to patient wristbands, labels are vital in ensuring patients, their medical records and medicines are easily identifiable. However, many labels are still handwritten, which take longer to produce and are more likely to contain errors.

Misspelt names, wrong dates of birth or illegible patient numbers mean crucial samples and documents are easily lost – finding or repeating them only serves to further stretch the NHS’s resources. On top of that, it risks reducing the quality of medical care that patients receive. Our healthcare professionals are already extremely busy, and these inefficiencies only add to their burdens.

There are examples of organisations that have already worked to remedy that problem. We recently partnered with one hospital trust that wanted to reduce the time and margin for error from handwritten test cards and sample tubes in its pathology unit.

Errors can build up quickly here. The trust’s staff manage more than three million samples a year – if just 1 per cent of contained errors, this would result in the staff needing to repeat 30,000 samples. This would waste a significant amount time and money, and cause distress for patients.

We supported the trust with a fleet of devices from our QL labelling range, which prints images, texts and barcodes of a variety of sizes. It used to take staff an hour and 15 minutes to process a batch of tests and samples. Now, it only takes 15 minutes, making the Trust five times quicker at processing admin tasks, which frees-up vital clinical time.

Accurate labels also make for a more positive patient experience, because it means that blood bottles, for example, aren’t getting lost or mixed up. Receiving healthcare can sometimes be a stressful experience for patients, and accurate labelling limits the risk of the human error that can create complications and add to anxieties.

This shows how big an impact labelling can have for healthcare providers looking to boost productivity and improve the patient experience.

Easing the burden

Such is the importance of labelling and the barcodes they feature, industry-wide initiatives to boost and improve their use are gathering momentum.

GS1, which we’re an accredited member of, is a not-for-profit organisation that is the world’s leading voice for best practice when it comes to barcodes and labels. Initially formed by a group of 50 retailers to create the world’s first barcode, it now lobbies for standardisation to boost productivity between sectors, including healthcare.

It has teamed up with NHS England to launch the Scan 4 Safety campaign. Its aim is to stop ‘never events’, the serious safety incidents that are largely preventable. For example, this could include surgery on the wrong area of the patient. This is rare, but can be extremely harmful to the patient.

GS1 is working with 150 Trusts to improve patient identification, better manage catalogues of samples and drugs, and locate records, patients and data. Eradicating these errors is going a significant way to stopping ‘never events’ and there are also knock-on benefits.

Results so far include releasing 140,000 hours of clinical time back into patient care as well as thousands in financial savings, because time is no longer being wasted locating missing samples or interpreting smudged handwritten labels.

When you consider that some primary healthcare staff still spend 11 per cent of their time on average completing admin tasks, there are huge gains to be made here that will free up time and resources within our stretched healthcare system.

Small, affordable and immediate improvements such as this is what we mean when we ask clinical directors to focus on the dolphins, not the whales. Attempting to tackle major IT overhauls will take time and money, but healthcare providers still have an opportunity to act now and make a difference.

Diane Barnes, Senior Business Manager and healthcare specialist, Brother UK