Coronavirus: UK health service turns to technology to fill staffing gap

Hospital's need to tap into a flexible workforce as doctors contract virus

Powered by automated translation

Britain’s state-run health care system is a source of national pride but the coronavirus pandemic is posing questions of the system that require unprecedented flexibility and innovation at a time of maximum stress.

Politicians and administrators have turned to a cadre of tech entrepreneurs for fast rollout of new digital management tools to change workflows, gather data and exchange treatment protocols.

One of those tapped up is Dr Anas Nader is the CEO and co-founder of Patchwork, a platform that connects hospitals with available medical professionals to support staffing levels.

As the National Health Service (NHS) tries to plug shortages and expand rotas, the Canadian doctor, who spent his teen years in Dubai, has provided his ready-made system to struggling hospitals.

Dr Nader told The National that rota and department vacancies have shot up, with hospitals now requiring more flexible workers. Simply put, his organisation helps doctors choose medical centres to work for and NHS trusts search for qualified professions with ease.

Even before the pandemic Patchwork, which has been in operation since 2016, was working with 30 NHS hospitals in the UK but Dr Nader says interest has surged recently.

“More recently Covid-19 just made these requirements more acute and we are finding a lot more of our existing NHS partners and new hospitals coming to us and asking for how we can support them with a work force coming in to plug the gaps and increase their capacity.”


Already struggling after years of cuts and an ageing population, the coronavirus outbreak has only added further strain to the creaking NHS system with the government forced to call up the military to set up emergency hospitals across the country.

Health workers are among those most likely to catch the virus with multiple doctors and nurses dying after becoming infected. The UK death toll has soared well over 6,000 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in intensive care after catching Covid-19.

Some estimates say as many as 25 per cent of frontline health workers have been forced to self- isolate or have contracted the coronavirus.

With non-emergency doctors increasingly being moved to different departments at short notice, Dr Nader believes Patchwork has a treasure trove of information on doctors’ skills to enable the staffing holes to be filled.

“Even without any sickness rates, many hospitals are redeploying their workforce from one side of the hospital to another,” he said.

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Europe under Coronavirus

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Europe under Coronavirus

“Many traditional hospital functions such as elective surgery, some of these services that are not urgent, have been delayed or cancelled so that hospitals can free up capacity in their beds to focus on covid 19.

“Therefore some of the clinicians who would have been involved in these types of elective procedures are being redeployed into the frontline to support acute physicians,” he added.

Historically the UK’s health system has traditionally relied on recruitment or locum agencies to fill staffing shortages.

Hospitals often need highly qualified medical professionals to fill short-term vacancies – as well as long-term – caused by multiple reasons such as bereavement or pregnancies.

But these recruitment agencies charged exorbitant fees to an already under-resourced NHS and gaps were not always filled.

Dr Nader believes technology should be crucial in the fight to stop the coronavirus outbreak and believes the government response has generally been good.

“There’s always been a conversation that technology, healthcare professionals and mangers have been talking about it for years now about the value technology plays and obviously the limitations technology has,” he said.

“And, you know, appreciating that technology is going to enable transformation in the delivery of healthcare but can also be mismanaged or deployed in the wrong way or built in the wrong way can at best be a distraction and at worst can actually have a negative impact.”

Dr Nader says “common-sense” solutions are crucial and admits there has been a frustration that they have not been adopted quickly enough.

He believes it’s “unfortunate” it took a worldwide pandemic for governments to turn more to technology but adds the same scrutiny to what goes on the market must be applied.

“We need to be selective and careful with what we’re deploying in peacetime or during a crisis. On the flipside there’s always been a frustration amongst both the providers of health care on the frontline as well as technologists who have been trying to build solutions for them.

“There has been a frustration in the past that the system is not moving fast enough to adopt common sense technologies whether it’s things like telemedicine or electronic prescription in the community.”

Dr Nader, who trained at Imperial College London, says he plans to head back to the medical frontline soon.