University Southampton Hospital turns to Teams – and bots – to improve healthcare

The University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust has partnered with Medxnote and Microsoft Teams to move away from pagers as the main messaging tool for workers.

healthcare technology / medical data
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Despite the efforts by the UK government to push the National Health Service (NHS) to upgrade outdated, legacy systems, most NHS trusts are still struggling to do so. When the WannaCry incident arrived in 2017, the UK’s health service was because most NHS trusts still relied on PCs using outdated – and unpatched – Windows XP or Windows 7.

Among the facilities looking to move forward: University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHS), one of the largest acute teaching trusts in England, providing hospital services for 1.9 million people living in southern Hampshire. Until recently, pagers – or “bleeps” as staff often refer to them – were an everyday sight, with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals relying on them to work.

UHS workers knew that pagers weren’t exactly the best way to communicate, and began looking for an alternative, three years ago.

“At the time, in the market, there were lots of things that could be true bleep replacements,” said Dr. Ashwin Pinto, consultant in clinical neurology and joint chief clinical information officer at UHS. “We were looking for a more intelligent way to allow good communication between members of a clinical team.”

The team in charge of sourcing a replacement turned to an Irish company, Medxnote, which offered a messaging platform that could deliver speedy communications. Medxnote could also scale its platform, a feature that was vital for an NHS Trust with around 12,000 staff members.

“In an organisation like ours, you need to have a directory service. You need to know who's in your organisation, what role they have, and how you can contact them and some of the other messaging solutions won't give you that,” Pinto explained. “You need a way of knowing for certain who's in your organisation, who’s to be trusted and to pass messages between different members of a clinical team.”

However, it was Medxnote’s ability to develop bot technology that could be integrated with Microsoft Teams that intrigued the Trust.  

During this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, Teams has been made widely available to NHS Trusts through accounts; the UHS work with Teams and Medxnote bots has taken the technology a step further. (Medxnote is now working with four NHS hospitals.)

“What [the bot technology] is doing is acting as your intelligent assistant in the background and giving you the information that you need as a clinician without you having to remember to go and ask for it, or find a separate system to look it up on,” Pinto said.

“It's sitting in the background, looking out for results it knows you will be interested in and then surfacing them to you in an appropriate form in an appropriate channel within Microsoft Teams.”

Developing these bots has been a collaborative effort, with Medxnote and UHS’ tech team working together to decide what the bot needs to do and what clinical problems or questions it can handle that the current system can’t. Those requirements were then shaped by Medxnote and Microsoft into a solution for UHS – a platform that helped UHS handle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dealing with COVID-19

During the winter, the NHS routinely sees a spike in hospital admissions and a large number of cases of influenza. With this in mind, UHS had already started to think about how it could use bot technology to improve communications between teams and provide patients with faster access to flu results. By January, UHS was in a position to deploy Medxnote bots through Microsoft Teams to deliver results to clinicians – and it had managed to onboard around 5,000 staff members onto the platform within three weeks.

When the pandemic arrived, the bot technology designed to surface influenza results was repurposed to handle COVID-19 results for patients instead.

The plan, Pinto said, is to eventually offer access to the instant messaging platform and to Microsoft Teams to as many staff members as necessary. Those efforts were delayed when, UHS had to prioritise the rollout to frontline clinical staffers such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists. The pandemic has also made it harder for those with access to explore some of the more advanced and intuitive features the technology has to offer

“We know you can get the best out of these services if you know what they can really deliver, and I think people still haven't really worked out what the bot technology and Teams can do for us as an organisation,” he said. “We’re learning all the time, but actually, in a more staged deployment, there would have been more of a chance to educate and train so that people can come up with their ideas, and then we can support them in delivering them.”

UHS has been so impressed with the platform that it’s been talking to neighbouring hospitals about the project and hired someone to focus on training the hospital’s workforce on using Teams.

“The direction of travel has been set now by an extraordinary event and there's no doubt there'll be no going back,” Pinto said. “So, whether you're talking about instant messaging platforms, whether you're talking about video consultations, whatever it might be, we’re now working in a way that we never used to do before, because of the technology, and that's only going in one direction now.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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