For many outside the NHS, speech recognition would seem to offer a realistic solution to some of the resource challenges the NHS faces today; staff shortages, confined budgets, the rise in patient volumes and all paperwork and administration that follows-on from this to name just a few.
Indeed, across the country, pockets of the NHS ranging from GP practices to some hospital departments, are already using speech recognition to great effect. They’ve already seen how it can make a tangible reduction in patient letter turnaround times or save clinicians an hour or more a day on administration. For others, they have seen how by freeing up resources, the role of medical secretaries has evolved from back office admin to front line patient care. Arguably, this is how precious staff resources can be used to better effect.
Note that I said ‘pockets’ of the NHS. And there-in lies a conundrum. Speech recognition technology is clearly an effective and powerful tool, and one that can play a role in the NHS’s five year forward view. This begs the question just why hasn’t the NHS hasn’t embarked on a much broader deployment of the technology? From my experience working with clinicians and other healthcare professionals over many years, it boils down to two things.
The first is to do with changing fixed mindsets – ‘I’ve always done it this way, and I’m sticking to it’. While I have some sympathy for that perspective, the sympathy evaporates when that way of working has the potential to cause unnecessary delays and complications relating to the most important matter of all – patient care.
Training and Support
Often, the second reason is the lack of training – or poor training – that does little to shift this fixed mind set. It’s a dilemma compounded by the NHS’ legacy workflow processes. Speech recognition isn’t just about putting words on a page quickly, effortlessly and accurately. It’s also about the huge gains in productivity that can be driven by voice commands or ‘macros’ that provide shortcuts for often used text or to move speedily around the clinical documentation and applications rather than resorting once more to the keyboard. If these aren’t integrated with existing workflow there’s the danger that speech recognition can frustrate users rather than satisfy them. When that happens, users will almost always revert back to ‘the old way of doing things’ hi-jacking any real chance of making tangible efficiency improvements.
On a more positive note, we’re seeing much more enthusiasm for speech recognition from a younger generation joining the medical profession and those that are comfortable using it day to day. Their positive consumer experiences of the technology setts the expectation that it will be available for them to use in a professional capacity as well. The NHS needs to ensure that it is prepared for the new wave of clinicians entering the profession. Nevertheless, those that enthuse over the technology will need training. While the technology does work out-of-the-box, getting the most from it still requires some investment in time to create a workflow process that is seamless and efficient and adapted to each individual.
I am confident that, in the not too distant future, speech recognition will sweep across the NHS. It will deliver multiple benefits to clinician and patients alike. However, it is imperative that the deployment and training starts now in preparation for the new wave of millennials and beyond to support them as they meet the ever growing demands on the NHS.