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How one of the largest NHS Trusts in the UK switched to digital collaboration to help fight COVID-19

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood July 2, 2020
Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust adopted a single collaboration platform to help share knowledge, care for patients and support staff during COVID-19 lockdown.


One of the largest NHS Trusts in the UK, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation, has been providing patient-centred healthcare to communities in the North East of England (and beyond) for over 250 years and claims to offer a wider range of specialist services than any other.

Even before COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, the Trust's Infrastructure Manager, Bob Beckwith, was thinking about the role of technology in the delivery of effective healthcare at scale. He said:

"Managing 1,800 beds and almost two million patient contacts every year requires a strong team of employees and an even tougher technology infrastructure. It is incredibly important to have the right technology in place to ensure work can be completed to the highest standard."

In particular, Beckwith had been focused on how the Trust can use technology to better collaborate and communicate, both between staff and patients. Given the critical nature of an NHS Trust's work, communication tools need to be as seamless as possible. Beckwith said:

We were using different platforms and systems to converse through video conferencing, instant messaging, online collaboration and in ad-hoc conferences. This made communicating with colleagues and patients a lengthy and unnecessarily slow process. With all our teams working around the clock and having to remember important information about patients and medicine, the last thing they need to have to remember is individual passwords and usernames for each platform and software.

As such, the Trust's IT team was looking for a single collaboration platform to invest in, which could be used by all clinicians and team members across the Trust, as well as at the local community level.

This decision had already been taken before the pandemic struck, but Beckwith said the need became "far more urgent" as the realities of COVID-19 hit the UK and hospital staff were working on the front line in the fight against Coronavirus.

As coronavirus broke out and the UK went into Lockdown, we faced the daunting task of having to send all non-frontline workers to work from home while maintaining Trust operations and healthcare services. It was essential for us as a Trust to continue providing high quality healthcare while limiting the risk to patients, families and staff.

Using technology to share knowledge

As social distancing measures were implemented, the single collaboration platform that was selected - StarLeaf - was rolled out across the Trust. The results were immediate. Some 40% of the Trust's 13,500 employees were able to work from home almost overnight, while also maintaining day-to-day operations and improving longer term business continuity. Beckwith said:

I'm glad to say we were able to do that by rolling out this system to thousands of users in less than two days, and our IT staff are able to easily roll out and manage the solution even at such large scale. Users are able to pick up the solution and start communicating and collaborating immediately, too, without the need for user training.

We're now using this technology in a wide variety of cases, including major incident planning in IT, fetal medicine services, providing access to British Sign Language interpreter services and supporting multi-disciplinary team meetings.

Multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meetings are crucial for the organisation, Beckwith explained, as they allow clinicians to quickly bring together all the necessary people involved in a case. Now, special MDT rooms have been upgraded to include special touchscreen controllers and multiple screens to improve the meeting experience, ensuring team collaboration is possible every day.

The Trust is also using the solution to better support patients via remote clinics outside the Trust, ‘Town Hall' meetings and internal staff well-being consultations. This has extended the Trust's reach. Beckwith said:

This increases the reach of our services, allowing us to provide appointments to people who would otherwise not be able to access the hospital or attend an appointment.

This has become even more vital since the Pandemic, with remote appointments helping to keep both patients and healthcare providers safe, while reducing the spread of the virus.

The system is also providing the Trust with a more secure, reliable and efficient way to access and exchange electronic information through the platform's secure connection to the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN). That's because the vendor product has a data jurisdiction that guarantees all the Trust's information is held in the UK, and not in another country.

StarLeaf also complies with cloud security guidance issued by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), and is indeed one of only a few video meeting providers to have achieved the ISO/IEC 27001 global security certification, according to Beckwith.

We are confident that our data, most of which relates to patients and care, and is therefore confidential, is safe and secure.

Supporting staff working under great pressure

There's no doubt that the use of cloud-based video and collaboration has been a big success at the Trust, according to Beckwith. Between February 2020 and May 2020, the time during which the Coronavirus pandemic really took hold, there has been a 23-fold increase in meeting minutes at the Trust.

And not all of that's been for patient work, vital as that is. Beckwith told us that video has also been used to support staff working under great pressure and often without face-to-face contact with colleagues:

As well as being used for the patient side, StarLeaf has also been used for team meetings and team building events such as pub quizzes. This has allowed the team to come together and have some fun during this difficult period.

Digital collaboration and remote working has led to huge benefits at the Trust, according to Beckwith. And it has helped to deliver patient care during a very difficult period. He said:

This technology enabled people to reap the benefits of a face-to-face meeting-seeing people ‘in person', sharing content-but virtually, for ad hoc or scheduled meetings.

It's also made it easy to bring together all of the experts needed to work on a patient's care.

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