Virtual doctors’ appointments could be retained in North Staffordshire after the pandemic.
The NHS in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire has made various innovations during the Covid-19 crisis, such as the roll-out of digital technology to allow clinicians to see patients remotely.
Now the area’s clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are looking at how these emergency measures could become permanent, due to how well they have worked over the eight months.
But the CCGs insist that changes will only be retained where there is agreement they will benefit patients, and subject to consultation to be carried out next year.
Marcus Warnes, accountable officer for the Staffordshire CCGs, told elected members at Stoke-on-Trent City Council that the pressures of the pandemic, including the need for social distancing, had accelerated planned changes in the NHS.
Speaking at a meeting of the adults and neighbourhoods overview and scrutiny committee, Mr Warnes said NHS England had asked CCGs to look at what changes had delivered ‘tangible benefits’ for patients.
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He said: “It’s fair to say that in the first free months – March, April, May – we made more transformational changes to the way care is delivered than we’ve made in the previous three years.
“All of this has been temporary, and some of which we will need to formally consult on at some point in the near future.
“We’ve accelerated innovations that were set out in the long-term plan, around the use of digital. Over the last six or seven months, we’ve really revolutionised the way digital solutions are used to deliver care.
“There is a long-standing joke that there’s one factory making fax machines in China, and its sole customer is the NHS. Up until fairly recently, the NHS worked on Windows XP.
“The NHS is fairly slow in adopting new technology and one of the things we’ve done through the pandemic is really up the pace of adopting digital solutions, such as Microsoft Teams for instance, which has really transformed the way care is delivered, and how we deliver our back office systems.
“We’ve also rapidly deployed services to take pressure off our hospitals, which have been hugely beneficial – things like health navigator and the community rapid intervention service.”
Other changes have included remote working, the launch of a ‘hot clinic’ for suspected Covid patients, and more integrated working between partners, such as in relation to care homes.
Mr Warnes told the committee that in order to be retained, the changes would need to meet tests for safety, effectiveness and patient outcomes.
They would also have to have the support of the CCGs, clinicians, scrutiny committees and Healthwatch.
Simon Whitehouse, director of Together We’re Better, the health and care partnership for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, told the committee the changes made by the local NHS had allowed it to stay ‘open for business’ throughout the pandemic.
But he said the pressures now being applied by the second wave of Covid-19 meant patients would need to ‘make good choices’ about how they accessed services.
Mr Whitehouse said: “The NHS is absolutely open for business. It’s under pressure and there are challenges. But if you need healthcare and you need intervention, then the services are there for you to access.
“As we go forward into the winter period and into lockdown two, we absolutely need to make sure that we’ve got a real focus on mental health, that we look after the health and well-being of our staff as well as the residents and patients, and that we meet the urgent care needs of the population.
“Some of the waiting lists and delays have increased because of the way we responded to the first wave, and how we’re responding to the second wave of Covid. But health partners are working really hard to find ways of keeping services going.”
Mr Whitehouse said people could help ease the pressure on the NHS this winter by following coronavirus guidelines, and getting a flu vaccination if eligible for one.