Belfast Health and Social Care Trust was already in the middle of its digital transformation when, almost overnight, the entire healthcare sector was upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Paul Duffy, co-director of IT and Telecommunications at Belfast Trust, said the pandemic has had a monumental impact on the healthcare sector and, as a result, virtual consultations became a much-needed lifeline.
“Everyone across healthcare faces the same challenges, and this period has made things more difficult and dangerous than ever,” said Duffy.
As a healthcare provider – one of the biggest on the island – Belfast Trust was perhaps better prepared than a typical organisation, but it also faced higher stakes.
“We knew Covid-19 was coming since last January. We thought as long as we could do our jobs two metres apart, we could still put patients first – that was the culture of our organisation at the time,” said Duffy.
Once government safety orders were issued, normal activities such as healthcare consultations and even meetings between professionals were made significantly more difficult.
The right technology made them possible, though, Duffy said.
“The minute lockdown started in March last year there were no physical meetings. The health and safety of everyone became our top priority, so almost overnight we needed a new solution. A way to still get together and make decisions – and, if anything, make them faster than we’ve ever had to before.
“For us, that was Microsoft Teams,” he said.
A lot of people were banking on that technology: Belfast Trust provides services at the city’s major hospitals, including Royal Group Hospitals, Belfast City Hospital and the Mater Hospital, as well as smaller specialist hospitals such as Musgrave Park and Muckamore Abbey.
The scale of the operation is staggering: Belfast Trust is the largest integrated health and social care trust in the UK, employing 23,000 to treat more than 340,000 patients across more than 100 hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
IT is a central part of healthcare today, including responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, both in terms of specialist systems for imaging, monitoring and diagnostics, and also keeping medical and other healthcare staff connected and dealing with patient administration.
Already by March 2020, Belfast Trust had implemented Microsoft 365 across the organisation and had 3,000 people using Teams regularly without needing a push from IT.
“Everyone had the hardware and just needed training, although month after month more people were discovering the benefits of Teams by themselves,” said Keren Moleon, systems specialist at Belfast Trust.
Custom solutions provided much-needed support: staff across Belfast Trust used a specially created Power App to choose relevant training sessions and join them through Microsoft Teams, helping show not only how meetings could continue online, but also how live events such as patient support groups could be run despite lockdown.
With vaccinations now well under way, some semblance of normality should return, but no-one is expecting an overnight reset – and the technology now in place will support Belfast Trust as it moves into the future.
Strict social distancing rules remain in place, so Belfast Trust continues to support patients remotely and provide face-to-face care in a secure way.
Privacy and compliance have been improved and bottlenecks removed, with paper-based processes replaced.
Belfast Trust worked with both Microsoft and its partner PA Consulting to develop a scalable and secure booking solution integrated through the Microsoft 365 platform. This included automations built through the Teams API to collect patient information and record consultations, with all data securely stored in the hospitals’ Electronic Patient Record system.
“We were already offering telephone consultations before Covid-19, but overnight we also launched our virtual video consultations through Teams,” said Moleon.