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Handing power to patients and professionals

As the fallout from the Francis Report continues to echo around the health sector it was refreshing to note an event recently which was purely aimed at innovating health care rather than indulging in recriminations.  Think tank Reform got together with Imperial College’s Institute of Global Health Innovation to draw attention to some of the positive innovations around the world which we may be able to learn from within the UK’s health sector.

Acknowledging that innovation can be defined in many ways, the event focused on three fundamental innovations which could improve the quality of care and patient outcome throughout the health service; workforce innovation, self care and personalised medication.

A shift towards personalised medication is only possible thanks to the leaps which science has taken in understanding the human genome.  With a greater understanding of personal risk factors comes the ability to target treatment on an individual basis.  We are already starting to see the benefit of targeted treatments in areas such as cancer and as our understanding grows the potential for more effective treatments is limitless.

Personalised medication does in part require a buy-in from the patient in understanding the risks of certain life styles and family traits and the next step is logically to encourage patients to take more responsibility for their care.  Self-diagnosis, arranging appointments directly with health professionals such as physiotherapists, managing self-treatment programmes is a step forward in understanding for patients but it will help to streamline the health service and target care where it is most needed.  For example, a patient with muscle or ligament damage needs to see a physiotherapist or osteopath straight away and making them travel the health nurse/doctor route first is a waste of resources and time.

This leads on to the third and most important change which the UK’s health services desperately needs, that of workforce innovation.  Doing away with rigid hierarchies and instead focusing on the individual patient means doctors, health care workers and support services all providing a flexible individual service.  Beacon Health Strategies, working with the poor, elderly and mentally ill in the USA has done just that. Over three years the flexible approach has reduced emergency hospital appointments by 60%, reduced suicide rates by a half and got 44% into work.

Innovation within the health sector won’t be easy.  It will require a sweeping away of the old hierarchies and a combined doctor/health professional service which is flexible and focused on patient care.  Those health professionals who have taken steps to outsource telephone answering, diary management and patient records and who are therefore able to maximise the time which they spend on patient care are in a perfect position to step forward into the new innovative, personalised era.

A culture of compassion

Following a number of high profile reports into the standards of care within the NHS the Prime Minister has announced a package of measures which are aimed at raising the standard of care provided by health services.  Alongside measures such as improved training for dementia carers and a defined career pathway for care assistants comes a vision for strengthening district nursing.

The attention grabbing element of this new package is the introduction of a “friends and family” test which will encourage patients to report back on hospitals.  Designed to be in place from April 2013 the test will then be gradually rolled out over the rest of the health service.

The measures have been broadly welcomed by health bodies with the NHS Confederation chief executive, Mike Farrar, saying that “we have got to ensure that a culture of compassion is running through the veins of every place that provides care, no ifs, no buts and no exceptions.”  But whilst greater training and a renewed emphasis on care and compassion is a major step forward, there still remains the twin challenge of providing patient care whilst coping with the day to day paper work and interruptions.

A survey of social care workers in 2012 revealed that just 15% of time was spent in face to face meetings with clients with the rest of the time taken up with paperwork, phone calls, travelling and other meetings.  If that figure were to be reflected across the health sector then there is precious little time available for patient care.

This time challenge is one which is not simply confined to those working in the NHS, but is also a problem for those providing other health services such as physiotherapy and osteopathy.  For them, every minute spent on paperwork and answering calls is a non-earning minute which is spent away from patient care.  This is where the services of a virtual receptionist can make a difference. With calls being diverted to a virtual receptionist the clinician can concentrate on providing treatments.

With diary management and patient records also being taken care of, the percentage of time spent on patient care can soar.  More time means the ability to provide full treatments to more patients; it means less of the “next please” and more holistic treatment of the person not just the symptoms.  In short more time means that clinicians can step up to the culture of compassion demanded and in the process help to take health services to the next level.

Prevention is better than cure

A disturbing report in The Lancet reveals that during the swine flu pandemic of 2009, preventative attitudes in the UK fell far short of those in countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Japan or America.  For example whilst 89% of Argentineans washed their hands or used sanitizer more regularly during the outbreak, only 53% of Britons did the same.

A similar pattern was seen in respect of covering up coughs and sneezes and avoiding hugging or kissing friends.  The conclusion from the research is that Britons are less likely to adopt protective measures than people elsewhere. This has implications in respect of the way in which information on disease is disseminated.

In response to the belief that good hygiene habits are best instilled in the young, Global Handwashing Day on October 15th will take place as the centre piece of a week of worldwide hygiene-based activities.  Top of the agenda is an attempt to set a world record with schools across the UK all taking part in a hygiene lesson at 10am.

Of course, hygiene is not just confined to schools and the public at large.  Health practitioners know only too well that hygienic practices form an essential ingredient of the customer experience.  Whether treating a client for back pain, providing a beauty treatment or simply providing a consultation; if the ambience and surroundings are wrong then the treatment will suffer.

One of the key ingredients to providing a good client experience is to give the client the surety that your attention is solely focused on them.  This means taking steps to ensure that consultations aren’t interrupted by telephone calls or other distractions.  Using a virtual receptionist service means that calls are answered and appointments booked by the receptionist service without the need to interrupt treatments to answer the phone.

With a handy always on view diary system the health practitioner can see appointments at a glance and keep control of their day whilst maximising treatment times.  Add in appointment reminders and invoicing and even more time can be spent on treating the patient.

In a time when effective diary management can make or break a health practice, using the services of a virtual receptionist can help to prevent no-shows and minimise empty hours.  Working alongside the health practice, the virtual receptionist helps to ensure the client experience is a pleasant one and that is the first step on the way to an effective cure.

Balancing the Health Budget

The news that the Health Minister, Andrew Lansley, has had to intervene in the running of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust has acted as a wake up call across the health sector.  The trust, which reportedly is running at a £1m per week deficit, may have to be put in the hands of an administrator tasked with turning the deficit around.

A further twenty trusts have reportedly declared themselves to be financially unsustainable in their present form.  Whilst some have put their difficulties down to the cost effects of building new premises under the auspices of the private finance initiative (PFI), others seemingly have more complex underlying financial pressures.

The action taken by the Health Minister is the first step in a process which was laid down in section 65 of the National Health Service Act 2009.  If the full procedure is followed and an administrator appointed they will have to produce a draft report within 45 days, followed by a consultation period of 30 days and a final report 15 days later.

Irrespective of the outcome, this intervention has highlighted the continuing financial pressure facing all those providing health services in the UK.  From large NHS trusts to a sole osteopath, the challenge to control costs and maximise income is the same.  For the smaller health practitioner the need to balance costs and income can prove to be a juggling act between time spent in treatment and time spent on business matters.

Taking appointment booking as an example; the more time spent on patient treatment, the more income generated.  But how do you juggle the need to be with a patient with the need to be available to answer the phone and take a booking?  This is where a dedicated health practitioner virtual receptionist service can play a vital part.  With a virtual receptionist answering calls, dealing with routine queries and managing the diary, health practitioners can concentrate on providing treatment for their patients.  Add in an appointment reminder service and the number of no shows falls, helping to keep income levels strong.

We can’t claim that a virtual receptionist service is the panacea which solves the NHS funding crisis.  However, for those working in the health sector from physiotherapists to beauticians and from massage therapists to health clinics a virtual receptionist may just be the first step towards balancing the budget.

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