How one doctor took on digitising care for mums and babies

An interview with Dr Sunita Sharma, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London.
By Leontina Postelnicu
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Dr Sunita Sharma (on the far left) looking at the digital postnatal discharge system displayed on a screen; Credit: Lumeon

All jobs in the NHS will require “some element of digital skills” within the next two decades, the Topol Review published earlier this year cautioned.  And while it is well-known that bringing innovation into a system as complex as the NHS is tough, many argue that is now starting to change. According to Dr Sunita Sharma, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, technology has "opened up a new world" for clinicians.

“I have been in the system long enough,” Sharma said during a MobiHealthNews site visit at the hospital. “In 2006, I wanted to do a digital project and I struggled, I struggled because the NHS as an organisation wasn’t willing to venture out into something that wasn’t the organisation.”

But the environment is different now. “Junior doctors have the ability to take time out of their training programme to do innovation, which in the past was definitely not allowed. I think there is a lot of potential in the workforce, and people themselves want to take up opportunities, and you don’t feel that limited, because I am of this profession, I can’t do [digital]," she explained.

At the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Sharma has worked on a number of initiatives to leverage the use of technology, including a project that saw a system to digitise the postnatal pathway go live in December 2018. Staff are using the new solution, from automation company Lumeon, funded by the CW+ charity, to coordinate activities on the ward, with a dashboard updating in real-time as they enter data.

“For the last five years, it’s been my mission to fix the postnatal care challenges, because it’s a very busy area. It’s a very happy time, but it can become a very hectic time,” Sharma explained.

To do so, the team has been working with Lumeon since 2016 to understand how the new system could help staff and not make their jobs harder. The principle, she says, is: “Design for the future but keep the strengths of the past [paper-based] system.”

But there's a lot more that they could use the system for than they are at the moment, starting with analysing the data being collected, Sharma explained. “In the old system, it was a whiteboard, you wipe it off and everything has been written off, history, gone.”

Now, she added, “there’s a lot of data and there’s a lot of appetite in the organisation to use that data to improve experiences for everybody.”

The Health Foundation’s Innovating for Improvement programme

During the past several years, Sharma has also helped launch the Mum & Baby app, which provides new parents with advice on looking after themselves and their baby.

She is also currently involved in an initiative funded by the Health Foundation through the Innovating for Improvement programme. The scheme supports over 20 projects with up to £75,000 to create and test innovations that would improve the delivery of health and care. 

Through this, Sharma and her team are looking at creating a “library” that would help those that have recently had a baby. "It’s a concept that I’ve seen in Sweden, where people who have gone through the journey before, whenever, are the library books, because they hold the expertise of the real life experience, and the people going through it now are the readers who need to get the information," she added.

The project, which will go on for 15 months, is currently in discovery phase, but Sharma said the innovation would be added to the Mum & Baby app. “It will have a virtual and a real-life component to it. There’s such a need because a lot of people like me, if you’re away from family, the kind of support that you may have had when family members lived nearby is not there.

"And then you’re a new parent, and you’ve read all the books, and you’ve researched Google to its limit, but actually, it’s so different when you have a real baby to hold and you are recovering yourself from the experience. You need somebody who understands how you feel, why you feel that way, and with the pressures on the health service, that support has to come with newer ways of finding the solutions."

And although bringing digital innovation and technology into the NHS has taken longer than expected, Sharma believes it will pay off. “For me, this is fun, this is not work,” she concluded. “At the end of the day, I want all of us to have a better experience, that’s my main driver, but use it to our advantage. The thing that I really quite hate is using it [technology] for the sake of it, I can’t do that."