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How a virtual work placement opened my eyes

Emma Clark, who is studying to become a junior doctor, describes what she learned during her virtual work placement at NHS Digital and how it has given her a new perspective on the NHS.

During my final year of medical school at the University of Exeter, I undertook a 4-week virtual placement at NHS Digital, as my medical school elective. As I start my career, this experience has given me a unique insight, not only into the behind-the-scenes of policy and decision making in the NHS, but also into the huge amount of work that goes into making it all possible.

I was originally drawn to the organisation after taking a module on our 'Digital World' as part of my MSc in Clinical Education. This introduced the concept of how rapidly the demands we place on providers and the needs of the new generation are changing as younger generations become digital natives. I hoped to find out more about the work that NHS Digital does to meet these demands.

A picture of Emma in her garden

What I did

On my placement, I felt privileged to have 1:1 meetings with senior clinicians from various streams as well as colleagues in other sectors, such as Human Resources. These meetings provided a space in which I could gain insight into the multitude of different streams at NHS Digital and some of the day-to-day workings. I was introduced to lots of work which I didn’t know needed to be done, but I quickly realised is essential to enable the work I will do on the 'front line’ come July.

I was also able to learn more about each clinicians’ journey to the company. I found it both fascinating and inspiring seeing not only how passionate every staff member is about their work but also learning how clinical staff had moved into leadership roles, in an arms-length body. Most staff attribute their career evolving in this way to identifying problems in their clinical careers that they wanted to change, which often ultimately came down to optimising digitalisation.

I quickly went from never having heard or thought about clinical safety and information governance to using terms such as 'IG' casually

The 1:1 meetings I attended were supplemented with observing a variety of insightful meetings such as the clinical safety panel, Pathways calls, risk stratification, continuous professional development events and those with other arms-length bodies such as NHSX. I quickly went from never having heard or thought about clinical safety and information governance to using terms such as 'IG' casually, gaining an understanding of how crucial this work can be.

These observations also taught me a lot about NHS Digital and leadership in healthcare. This came particularly from observing these larger meetings, watching how chairs navigated virtual meetings and ensured everyone had a forum to speak, whilst keeping discussions focused and conflict free.

I also had my own project with the NHS Pathways team: reviewing a reported issue in the 111 algorithm. I had to ascertain whether a problem existed and how it could be safely fixed. This provided an insight into how tricky and nuanced the algorithm behind remote medical clerking can be.

Unlike when clerking a patient in person, the algorithm typically does not go back on itself and phrasing one question inaccurately can change the direction of the entire consultation. This could have huge downstream effects, for example, a patient’s riskiest potential diagnosis could be missed leading them to receive the wrong disposition. As a result, that patient might not be seen in the right place or quickly enough. Therefore, I had to learn to consider all of the potential diagnoses which could underlie a presentation and which questions could filter through these safely.

How I found the experience

Everyone was welcoming, keen to teach me about clinical informatics and always invited me to see more of their work. This granted me access to any areas which I wanted to know more about. I had huge amounts of autonomy and flexibility enabling me to shape my days how I wanted to and explore avenues of particular interest to me.

In particular, senior members of staff had profound insights into the organisation which changed the way I view healthcare, whilst still being extremely approachable.

A lot of this work is strictly confidential, and after 6 years as a student in a junior position it was amazing to be privy to top level decision making. Joining NHS Digital was a steep learning curve, and I was immersed into a form of healthcare that was completely different from what I was accustomed to. I also joined the company at a fascinating time, as COVID-19 was necessitating rapid and innovative development.

This placement completely opened my eyes to a new career avenue

How this experience shaped me as I become a junior doctor

I gained a deeper appreciation for digitalisation and development and its potentially transformative impact on patient care. I also learnt how much usability and patient outcomes must be at the heart of healthcare technology, instead of innovation for the sake of it.

The Chief Medical Officer taught me that “we must make it easy for the user to do the right thing”. This one piece of simple advice alone taught me so much about how we need to shape healthcare technology for the users and that is why the clinical roles in NHS Digital are so vital.

As a doctor, I believe this has changed the way I will interact with technology. For example, I now understand how coding is about improving healthcare and not just relevant in the provision of funding, as I once believed.

This placement completely opened my eyes to a new career avenue. I am now sure that wherever my career takes me, I want to incorporate a role in optimising clinical informatics and healthcare leadership. Furthermore, at medical school I had not had much exposure to what healthcare leadership and management looks like in real-life. These are useful skills to start honing early on in my career.

I now realise the fact that it’s equal, free healthcare at the point of access isn’t the only thing that makes the NHS unique globally

One of the most important aspects for me was meeting a lot of clinicians who love their job. Being in a team so passionate about healthcare made me much more excited to be graduating and reminded me of why I originally wanted to be a doctor.

Finally, this placement gave me a completely new perspective of the NHS. I now realise the fact that it’s equal, free healthcare at the point of access isn’t the only thing that makes it unique globally. I now understand how a single healthcare system with a central data repository is hugely advantageous in a variety of ways, for example, it enabled the shielded patient list to be produced at such speed at the start of COVID-19 pandemic.

I am now even more passionate about joining the NHS and excited for all of the other directions my career can take me. I have developed new insights and skills which I feel will be immeasurably useful to me as both a doctor and member of a team.

Are you a clinician interested in joining the NHS Digital team? We'd love to hear from you. Search current job opportunities on our NHS Digital jobs page.

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Dr Raj Kumar, our Chief Clinician for Informatics, explains his role at NHS Digital and how it’s made him a better doctor, how clinical informatics has developed in the NHS, and gives advice to those looking to enter the field.
People are increasingly turning to digital services to get help for urgent mental health problems. Jane Smith, learning disability nurse and clinical lead for NHS 111 online, describes how the team have improved the service and how her role as a nurse helped make it happen.


Last edited: 16 June 2022 10:20 am