A lesson in digital direction from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth December 10, 2019
Major NHS trust digital leader on digitising the health sector in the age of austerity in UK healthcare

Image of a doctor in a hospital

Explaining to the board that there are multiple end points and that digital transformation is a continuous loop is part of a typical day of digital leadership in a major NHS trust undergoing a major modernisation. Sarah Moorhead is Associate Director of Digital at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in Yorkshire and leading the digitisation of the NHS trust.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust is one of the largest educational hospitals in the UK and employs 20,000 people and treats over a million people per annum.

That makes it a complicated digital challenge.

Moorhead has been with the trust for just over four years. Her current role being focused on improving the care and day to day running of the major hospital through the latest technologies.

As a teaching hospital we have a lot of clinicians that are ahead of the game in their use of technology, so our team has to be an enabler for them.

Moorhead is level headed but passionate about what technology can do for healthcare, in particular when developed in conjunction with the clinicians. 

diginomica meets Moorhead at the .Next conference in Copenhagen where she was presenting to CIO and CTO peers on a shared stage with Richard Corbridge, now Director of Innovation at retailers Boots (https://diginomica.com/nhs-cio-turned-innovation-leader-brings-wellbein…).  

They present together to break down perceptions that transformation in healthcare is completely different to that in retail or the private sector. Their lively and informed presentation demonstrates striking similarities in the challenges retail and healthcare face as they move into the digital economy.  At the heart of both stories is that the customer, or in Leeds’ case the patient, having to be at the centre of digital developments.

If we don’t see proof that it is improving patient care, then we stop.

Digitising Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust will mean the automation of a variety of tasks, this at a time when the NHS is facing unprecedented levels of strain as a result of the government’s cuts to healthcare.  

We are taking people with us and re-skilling them. A significant part of the workforce is involved in health records and they are being re-skilled to be involved in the deployment and usage of robotic process automation (RPA). People automatically think that as soon as something is automated they won’t be needed any more. You will always need a level of automation.

The NHS, just like many other large scale organisations, is finding that their staff are spending the bulk of their working week on routine tasks that RPA can take on, freeing workers up to do more complicated and interesting tasks. Leeds is well placed to redeploy information workers, it has an in-house development team and is rare amongst NHS trusts in that it developed its own electronic health record (EHR) technology.

One of our biggest challenges is to overhaul the infrastructure. The EHR is 16 years old and therefore we need to look at cloud so that we have a platform that is fully scalable. We also have 360 odd legacy systems and need to work out what we can put on the cloud.

A growing number of organisations are faced with infrastructure modernisation before they can reap the benefits of recent technology innovations, including RPA.

Digital Director

Leeds has divided its digital strategy into two areas of focus: demand and supply.  Demand is the infrastructure modernisation, replacing the EHR and developing a new information governance. Supply is the new ways of working and the insight that the trust will have from its new infrastructure and methods.

We are aligning the EHR development team with the data insight teams so that we are able to change the way that we report as an organisation. At the moment it is a series of very clunky spreadsheets.

One challenge Moorhead faces is that the organisation demands new tools and ways of working instantly.

People want there to be an end point, so you have to explain to the board that there are multiple endpoints. It is a continuous loop of change and that is where Microsoft, VMware and Softcat help us keep up to speed.

Business technology leaders in retail, fast moving consumer goods, financial services and engineering are all working in close collaboration with their technology partners to ensure they deliver the services that team members and customers demand.

If you have a workforce that has bought into what you are trying to do, it really helps spread the message that we are listening to them. We take our staff out four times a year and talk about what we are doing, in terms of healthcare and making the lives of patients better.

The celebration piece is really important, especially as we are a big team of 415 people.

Not only is helping technologists let their hair down important, Moorhead and Leeds invest time and effort into ensuring the non technology team members are engaged and involved in the digitisation of the NHS trust.  

Four times a year we have an all staff meeting and we try to encourage people to go to at least two of these. It is also an open invitation to the executive of the hospital to come and discuss what we are doing. Our motto as a team is: ‘tell us your problem so that we can help solve it, don’t tell us the solution. And our language in health IT has changed and that is reflected in the departmental name, which is the Digital Informatics Team (DIT).

In September 2019 Leeds appointed Paul Jones as CDIO and Moorhead describes her role and how it differs from that of the CDIO:

My role is to get down into the detail, more than the CDIO can. Our CDIO is on the executive board and answers to the CEO, so their remit is much wider than just the digital agenda.


No conversation about the National Health Service can avoid the topic of austerity and the increasing levels of demand placed on the NHS whilst budgets, in real terms, have not grown.  

We are typical of the NHS. Too many patients, not enough money with infrastructure issues. As a leader it is something we have struggled with, you make cuts and then the government gives you funds, so it can be a frustrating place to be.

We try and focus on what we are doing for Leeds and shield our team as there is so much uncertainty. We have a defined roadmap that everyone in Leeds has bought into so we don’t want to cloud the technology team with uncertainty.

Moorhead joined Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which is also Leeds based.  The Yorkshire city has long played an important role in the delivery of health across the UK and is also home to the National Institute for Health Research. 

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