With COVID-19 reducing capacity and closing entire departments, access to healthcare is blocked for a huge proportion of patients. Luckily, audiology is full of innovators harnessing their digital skills to implement new approaches. The ‘digital-first’ method has tangible benefits for patients but requires us all to think about how we interact with the digital world.
The need for immediate change is clear, keep infection rates low and save lives. But as we begin to implement ‘digital-first’, we can start to see its benefits for patients. Video consultations offer many of the advantages of a face-to-face appointment, such as rapport building and lip-reading cues (Donaghy et al., 2019). However, they also reduce the cost and burden of travel, and give patients greater control of when and where they wish to receive care. Apps allow us to remotely program a patient’s hearing aids or can be used as a triaging tool to reduce unnecessary clinic visits.
Using digital platforms can also help us work more effectively as teams. I’m sure many of us have used Zoom to stay connected with friends during the restrictions, but they can also help teams maintain cohesion across varied working patterns and sites. Where many professionals from different teams are involved, communication can often be limited to a monthly meeting and endless email chains. Team management software means we don’t have to wait for the next meeting, we can converse in real-time, work on documents together and organise meetings at the drop of a hat (Microsoft, 2020). Working in this way moves us towards integrated care, a more person-centred and efficient approach, and a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan (NHS England, 2019).
As we move our appointments online and embrace new technologies we all need to develop our digital skills. Digital literacy is using a variety of digital platforms to find, evaluate, create and communicate information (American Library Association, 2020). It is not simply using the computer, but having the skills to live, learn and thrive in a digital world (Health Education England, 2018). Digital literacy allows us to evaluate the effectiveness and feasibility of new technologies and integrate them with our current patient pathways.
The Topol review presents the critical need for these digital skills in the NHS. According to his report, within the next 20 years all staff in the NHS will need to be digitally literate, genomics will become part of our day to day conversations and other technologies like artificial intelligence and teleaudiology will be increasingly mainstream. Interacting with these advances represents an enormous challenge as, currently, there is great variation in digital literacy and many are unwilling or unable to improve (Topol, 2019).
Now, you might be thinking how on earth does one audiologist like me make such big changes? The Topol report stresses the importance of identifying ‘future champions’ to educate those around them and lead the change (Topol, 2019). Early professionals and students are perfectly placed for this because this is our future. In 20 years, we will be those digitally literate professionals explaining genomic information and using speech recognition to write reports. Why not start now?
Several of the Topol recommendations relate to collaborative education, meaning all professionals have a part to play. To widen your skill set, you may be able to access digital skills training either through your organisation or online. However, don’t forget that you already have a wealth of experience to draw upon. Did you use collaborative software at university? Do you make Youtube videos in your spare time? By sharing your experience with others, you encourage them to join you in exploring the digital world.
You might find it easiest to start with something small. Maybe have a lunchtime chat or staff meeting over Microsoft Teams and invite colleagues working from home to join in? Or give a demonstration of a particular piece of technology you feel might be helpful in your department. Trialling technologies in an informal setting first, helps staff to become more comfortable with using them and gives you a chance to brainstorm together how they might be useful clinically.
As audiology emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, things will look rather different than at the dawn of 2020. We can allow things to slowly slide back to the way they were, or we can harness this change to bring in new ways of working that benefit patients. As early professionals, this is our future. If we don’t use the technology or believe it works, how can we expect our colleagues and patients to?
American Library Association (2020) Digital Literacy [online]. Available from: https://literacy.ala.org/digital-literacy/ (Accessed 7 July 2020).
Donaghy, E. et al. (2019) Acceptability, benefits, and challenges of video consulting: a qualitative study in primary care. British Journal of General Practice. [Online] 69 (686), e586–e594. [online]. Available from: https://bjgp.org/content/69/686/e586.
Health Education England (2018) A Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework. 1–30. [online]. Available from: https://www.hee.nhs.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Digital%20Literacy%20Capability%20Framework%202018.pdf
Microsoft (2020) Welcome to Microsoft Teams [online]. Available from: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/teams-overview (Accessed 9 July 2020).
NHS England (2019) The NHS Long Term Plan. [online]. Available from: https://www.longtermplan.nhs.uk/online-version/.
Topol, E. (2019) The Topol review: Preparing the healthcare workforce to deliver the digital future. (February), 102. [online]. Available from: https://topol.hee.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/HEE-Topol-Review-2019.pdf.