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Creating connections – implementing NHS WiFi across England

In 2016 a small team embarked on an ambitious programme of work to make sure everyone can access free and consistent NHS WiFi services in over 7,000 GP practices and over 200 trusts across England. Programme Manager Donna Braisby reflects on the scale of the challenges involved and the significance of the project.

By Donna Braisby. 23 May 2019

Member of NHS staff assisting a person with their mobile phoneNHS WiFi in action at the Ballam Street Practice

Prior to the installation of NHS WiFi in July 2018, many practice staff had to pay for mobile WiFi. Now, thanks to WiFi connectivity, having to use personal mobile data is a thing of the past. For example, at the Crystal Peaks Medical Centre in Sheffield not only can GP registrars access learning materials whilst at the centre, tutorials can be facilitated without having to use a desktop PC in a consultation room.

The NHS WiFi programme started three years ago, and the sheer scale of the challenge our programme team faced was daunting. Not one estate is the same, infrastructure variations are huge and the demand in trusts and CCGs is understandably immense. The idea that we would be able to deliver this extremely ambitious programme by March 2019 was therefore the stuff of dreams.

We had to start somewhere, and given the complexities of the project, our small (but perfectly formed) team recognised our role had to be that of an enabler: it would be the job of participating CCGs and trusts to procure suppliers, implement the WiFi and realise the benefits locally. We tapped into our experts across the organisation to establish a delivery model that was absolutely achievable.

Our responsibilities would involve allocating funding appropriately, facilitating and monitoring progress, evidencing usage and realising the benefits from enabled capacity across the whole country – and working with CCGs, trusts and system suppliers to do all of this before the end of March 2019.

When monitoring a national implementation programme covering thousands of sites, up-to-date timely and accurate information is essential

It was a tall order and required a great deal of dedication and tenacity. The key was preparation. Before funding was released, we took the time to understand the landscape we were delivering into by assessing the baseline of existing WiFi capability and completing a ‘Request for Information’ exercise with some of the major WiFi suppliers. The programme required a sizing index to support differential funding based on estate size and complexity, so we created one based on nationally published reports.

Achieving the dream

We forged strong, collaborative relationships with trusts, CCGs, suppliers and other stakeholders. We created minimum standard policies and used a memorandum of understanding to describe roles and responsibilities. This meant the roles and responsibilities were clearly understood and met.

Guidance on purchasing was provided, and we worked flexibly and fluidly: revisiting our funding model and adjusting it to align with changing political priorities and organisational change.

All participating organisations were required to assign a single responsible contact, and we shared training, disseminated knowledge and facilitated the resolution of any issues through this, and extended networks.

When monitoring a national implementation programme covering thousands of sites, up-to-date, timely and accurate information is essential. We were able to provide a simple web-based tool to allow identified individuals from sites to submit progress and usage data to the programme. Data submitted to the tool was used to automatically update rollout progress reports and dashboards on a daily basis.

We kept these dashboards public, enabling stakeholders – including patients – to access them. We also sought examples of innovative use of WiFi, to illustrate the benefits for patients and staff across primary and secondary care.

Real results for professionals and patients

By the end of March 2019, as well as having acquired an extra few grey hairs, we had successfully implemented free NHS WiFi in more than 95% of GP surgeries, and 98% of trusts.

The effects have been transformative:

NHS WiFi allows people to stay in touch at critical times: enabling a cancer patient to keep in touch base with friends and family whilst in hospital; allowing a parent or guardian receiving emergency care to arrange for their children to be collected from school; or just the opportunity to browse the web as you wait for a check-up in your GP practice.

GPs have been describing to us how NHS WiFi has helped transform practices: moving patients to digital services to arrange appointments, and in some cases, receive online consultations. Some trusts have WiFi driven ‘You are here’ mapping systems to show patients where they are in the care pathway, and clinicians across the NHS have been using WiFi to train people to access personal health records, find health-related content and utilise other digital tools and services.

Community midwives provide vital services in multiple NHS settings in a local area. In remote rural areas a mobile phone signal can be something of a rarity – but midwives can still use free GP NHS WiFi to securely connect with their remote home clinical systems. This allows them to record and retrieve the most up to date information on their patients as they travel from location to location.

The experience of community midwife Julie Haigh is just one example - the introduction of WiFi is helping her provide a better service for pregnant women in the hills of north Cumbria.

“Submitting information on the spot can make a real difference,” said Julie.

 “During one consultation, my client was unwell, so I arranged for throat swabs to be taken. She collapsed later in the day and was taken to hospital. They could see the details I had submitted earlier and were able to act quickly. It turned out she had sepsis.

"Before, I would have had to drive back to my practice to enter it on the system or even do it during the evening, once I was at home. It saves me time and it saves the NHS money, because it cuts down on travel costs and paper costs.”

Next steps

On 30 April 2019, the Department for Health and Social Care announced all NHS organisations will get the fastest broadband available, which will further improve the quality and speed of NHS WiFi.

In the final months of this challenging implementation project, there is still work planned to develop WiFi capability further, including the ability to provide a link to local content – such as an individual GP practice or trust website - from the standard front landing page. Additionally, we are ensuring there is a way for innovators to share their victories and issues, so we can advertise and push forward the delivery of innovative digital services utilising NHS WiFi.

To help with this we would like to hear any stories you have to share about the benefits of NHS WiFi. If you want to join the conversation, please contact us at nhswifi@nhs.net.

Head and shoulders image of Donna Braisby

Donna Braisby

Last edited: 1 October 2019 9:45 am