Pioneering digital tech-driven pilot to address ‘unprecedented pressure’ on health and social care delivery across Moray and beyond

Simon Bokor-Ingram (Chief Officer for the Moray Health and Social Care Partnership)

EXPERTS believe new data-driven digital health technology set to be piloted across Moray will be vital in efforts to address ‘unprecedented pressure’ on frontline health and social care services and delivering better outcomes for patients throughout Scotland. 

Health and social care leaders say services across Scotland face ‘serious challenges’ amid a perfect storm of declining health and mental wellbeing made worse by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis; reduced budgets and unsalvageable staffing levels; and longer life expectancy in sections of society. 

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They warn these factors coupled with declining numbers of people entering health and social care professions have left services at a ‘tipping point’. The situation means current delivery models – such as on demand face-to-face GP and hospital appointments – as ‘unsustainable’, with innovative approaches and solutions the only option available to address chronic shortages of suitable staff. 

The £5 million UK Government-funded Rural Centre of Excellence for Digital Health and Care Innovation (RCE) – a health and social care focused research and development project launched in 2021 as part of the Moray Growth Deal – has been set up to identify and deliver digital tech innovations that will help improve the delivery of health and social care by making services more accessible, equitable, and person-centric.

The project is led by Scotland’s Digital Health and Innovation Centre (DHI), a world-leading collaboration hosted by the University of Strathclyde in collaboration with The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and financed by the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council. The project aims to drive a fundamental change in approach to health and social care that will see the public taking proactive responsibility for their own health and wellbeing through control and sharing of relevant linked data across all aspects of their lives. The approach will shift the balance of care to utilise self-management and community services in the first instance to deliver more efficient and targeted care while relieving pressure on frontline services as the population continues to age (more than 22% of the population in Moray are over 65). 

Health and social care partners involved in the project say possible applications of technology include the use of a data cloud to securely store patients’ personal data and create more streamlined and efficient access to integrated services such as GP appointments, routine blood tests, or referrals. 

The tech would also make it easier for unpaid carers – often relatives with sole care responsibilities – to help loved ones living with health conditions access the services they need when they need them. 

Moray’s rural setting makes it a perfect test bed for the new digital applications, which are also aimed at mitigating the impact of ‘rural poverty’ on access to health and social care services. Members of the public across the region are being recruited to participate in ‘living labs’ allowing their voice to be heard and to measure and prove the effectiveness of new approaches. If successful, the aim is then to roll out the tech out across other regions in Scotland and potentially beyond. 

A series of four public events will be held later this month with the aim of encouraging more patients and carers to join the pilot and help test the new approach. 

Dr Malcolm Simmons is a Forres-based GP Partner and GP Clinical Lead for Moray, and has been involved in the RCE project. He acknowledged that GP services are under more pressure than they ever have – and highlighted the potential for new digital approaches to help address the situation. 

He said: “​​Our frustrations are our patient’s frustrations. We want our patients to be able to access our services easily and have timely access to hospital and secondary care tests and treatments, and we don’t want their health to deteriorate whilst waiting on NHS waiting lists. We want to provide as much access as possible and offer a range of services in a variety of different ways, but our capacity is finite and there has been under-investment in GP services, infrastructure, and premises over many years.”

He added: “The development of the personal data store has the potential to overcome several significant practical difficulties patients, families, GPs, carers, and other professionals face when trying to share information that is used to optimise the care provided to an individual. With the person controlling who has access to their information, the individual can choose to share their information with everyone who is important to them, thereby allowing health and care teams to communicate more effectively, improving care for the individual at the centre of this model. 

“This will also allow the individual to communicate more easily and effectively with those involved in their care, access information about their health; test results and treatment; and access information online and in their local area that helps support their health and wellbeing. In the future, everyone could have access to this technology, allowing phone or tablet real time access to results, health information and advice with up to date information about local resources and services that might help deal with health problems or encourage a healthier lifestyle.” 

Simon Bokor-Ingram, Chief Officer for the Moray Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “Make no mistake, we are facing serious challenges in the delivery of health and social care in Scotland – and it’s not unique to this country. We need genuine innovation and radical new approaches if we are to continue meeting the needs of the public, and that’s where this new approach will be essential. 

“The pandemic is not to blame for the challenges health and social care face. It has accelerated the problem, but these fundamental issues with capacity – for example the ability to secure on demand face-to-face appointments – were predicted and would have emerged anyway. There is a demographic shift with people living longer and therefore placing greater demand on services that outstrips human resources. When coupled to a reduction in the number of people entering health and social care it’s inevitable there will be a tipping point – and we’ve reached it. This cannot be addressed with more money alone.”

He added: “In the main, digital creates a level playing field in terms of access. Elgin is a long way from Raigmore, Aberdeen, and the Central Belt, and rural poverty – primarily around transport and proximity – is a real issue. Progressing the digital agenda can become a solution.

“Covid changed the way people are willing to access healthcare, and there is more acceptance of services being delivered in different ways. By creating access to services that can be delivered digitally through those mediums, we can cut waiting lists and reduce the need for unnecessary travel. There could be no need to travel to Aberdeen for routine appointments, blood test results could be delivered digitally through the app.

“This is not about replacing face-to-face contact, it’s about delivering services that can be delivered digitally through those mediums so there can be greater access to in person contact where it is needed.

“It works for everybody too, for an ageing population it expedites access to services needed more frequently, for younger generations there is an expectation for more services to be delivered this way.”  

Janette Hughes, Director of Planning & Performance, DHI, said: “This is about real-world testing of digital applications that could make a massive difference in the delivery of health and social care in rural settings. It’s a huge opportunity for Moray and the North of Scotland to put a pin in the map allowing citizens’ voices to be heard, and in turn build a strong research platform, which will attract industry and with it the potential for new jobs and investment.

“Traditionally more investment for innovation goes to urban areas, but through the Moray Growth Deal we have a real and tangible investment in health and social care innovation that will make an impact for local communities. 

“By joining the citizen panel and participating in these living labs, members of the public across Moray can potentially be involved in and then feel the benefits of these services personally, as well as contributing to a better future for health and social care in Scotland and beyond. It’s a once in a lifetime project they can be a central part of it.” 

The four citizen panel information events will be held at Forres Town Hall (Wednesday, March 20 10am-12pm); Buckie Fisherman’s Hall (Thursday, March 21 6-8pm); Fleming Hospital, Aberlour (Friday, March 22 2-4pm); and Elgin Library (Saturday March 23 10am-12pm). Joining the panel will allow participants to keep up to date with project progress on the Digital Innovation Hub private page for Citizen Panel members only; shape the direction of the project by providing their valuable feedback during workshops, interviews or surveys; and play a part in a once in a lifetime project that could transform health and care services in Moray and beyond. 

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