The potential of digital technology to streamline patient pathways is being examined in all corners of the NHS, perhaps ‘unsung heros’ in this discussion are room booking tools and scheduling software.

The NHS is inherently a patient-focussed service. However, as building pressures, stretched resources and staff shortages continue to rise, this ‘human’ element can become more difficult to manage. Particularly over the past year, with healthcare services pivoting overnight, activities were restricted in ways that were previously unimaginable, while teams focussed on coping with the immediate challenges of Covid-19. Essential treatment of the physical healthcare issue at hand often takes first priority over a patient’s social and psychological needs as a result of a diagnosis.  

In November 2019, a report by Macmillan Cancer Support showed 136,000 people are living with treatable but not curable cancer in the UK. In 2021 this number may be even larger due to undetected or unreported cases, as Cancer Research found that 40,000 fewer people started cancer treatment across the UK last year. 

When considering treatable but not curable cancer, the wider impacts of living with the chronic condition are often highlighted, including psychological and emotional wellbeing. This is echoed in a January 2021 King’s Fund report, funded by UBC, exploring innovations in treatment for rare or less-well recognised long-term conditions, including severe psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 

It’s long been said that a patient-centred approach is critical to providing the best 360° treatment and recovery plan, but the challenge lies in utilising the resources available in order to do so.  

A number of Oncology clinics at UK trusts are saying that room and resource scheduling tech could play an unlikely yet crucial part in creating the balance between efficient treatment and patient-focussed care. 

Uncertain daily routines 

Every patient’s healthcare needs are complex and wide ranging, leading to the NHS’ many specialist services; from fast acting A&E treatment, diagnosis and referral work at GP surgeries, to managing clinics for long-term life changing diseases such as cancer. When considering oncology or haematology units, treatment plans can last for six to 12 months or more, and even then, they are awash with uncertainty by their nature, leading to patients being unable to stick to a solid routine or plan ahead – both essential building blocks for wellbeing. 

Even with the best treatment planning there are a multitude of variables that can lead to significant change over time. Consistent and predictable healthcare interactions can be a challenge as clinical staff juggle priorities, with the patient’s access to appropriate treatment occupying top spot, with the impact on their lifestyle and wellbeing quite often having to come second.  

Something that can be managed with greater control are appointment schedules, which in turn can enable each patient to plan their daily lives. Day Units across the country are managed using varying systems, but these might be disparate spreadsheets or basic digital methods, like an Outlook calendar or similar.  

Typically, even for long-term treatment plans requiring regular trips to the clinic, patients won’t be given a small window of time for their appointments, instead being offered ambiguous ‘AM’ or ‘PM’ slots for the short term. Without the use of specifically designed technology or data, it can be impossible to account for all the variables including chair time and availability, staff schedules and changes to planned treatment. But there are advanced systems in place at some trusts with the means to do so, with some noting the wider benefits that having such visibility can bring. 

Empowering patients with data 

When the oncology and haematology departments at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham (QEHB) expanded from one to three units, they needed a system to manage their resources and patient pathways. Initially the Trust used a paper system, but delays were common if one treatment was late or rescheduled, requiring the entire paper trail to be changed manually.  

The staff now have a digital solution enabling them to quickly plan a treatment pathway and manage changes easily. Increased visibility of the availability of each unit is ensuring resources are used as efficiently as possible and staffing levels are safe.  

They are using a tailored software package from BookWise Solutions, whose room-booking tools are used across 100 NHS Trusts nationwide, including over 80 per cent of those recognised as Global Digital Exemplars in the UK. Using it’s specialist Duo package, now the units at QEHB offer their patients suggested pathways that are based on their individual needs, as well as the facilities and staff available. A copy of their treatment can be given to the patient to make them aware of their schedule – a small feature that makes a huge difference.  

With this, any changes to the schedule can be amended quickly, without causing delays to their care. Patients know exactly when and for how long they need to be at the hospital, with staff also noting that they feel empowered by the appointment slots rather than restricted by them. 

Of course, this is only one part of the puzzle – a study by The Mental Health Foundation explores further the emotional needs for patients after treatment too. However, for those 136,000 + patients who have prolonged hospital appointments as part of their new reality, with this insight it’s possible to turn it into a small part of their life during treatment rather than dictating it completely, while also improving efficiency of the entire department.  

Part of the plan? 

Digital solutions are nothing new within the NHS, with the Long Term Plan making clear ambitions for a digital transformation. Also outlined within this plan, and the Five Year Forward View that preceded it, was a call to align physical and mental health, as discussed further in this report by The Kings Fund. Indeed, throughout Covid-19 the NHS has utilised digital solutions to drive efficiencies and improve care, something which policy makers are being called upon to drive forward, to facilitate sustained change.  

Room booking technology could be something of an unsung hero in achieving this goal, delivering improvements leading to a better experience for patients and clinicians alike.