Andrew Griffiths became the first chief executive of the Federation for Informatics Professionals in Health and Social Care at the start of the year. He talks to Lyn Whitfield about its role in promoting professionalism and why this should be part of the debate about the future of health tech as the country and the NHS recover from Covid-19.

There are many lessons to be learned from the impact of the coronavirus on Britain and on the NHS; but one of them is that IT matters. As the country and the health service scrambled to prepare for Covid-19, IT teams mobilised to support remote working and, sometimes, whole new ways of working.

In the NHS, that meant sorting out communications so staff could work from home, extending networks and software licenses to reorganised services – including the Nightingale hospitals – shifting outpatient and primary care appointments online, and finding ways for hospital patients to communicate with family and friends.

In this, trust and community teams were supported by suppliers, who adapted products and often made them available for free, at least for the duration of the crisis. Andrew Griffiths, the new chief executive of the Federation for Informatics Professionals in Health and Social Care, has been hugely impressed by the response.

Now, he says, the challenge will be for health tech to use its new-found profile and credibility to build on the NHS ‘pivot to digital’ and to create new services and pathways that will serve it well in the difficult economic times to come.

Gaining credibility

“Digital informatics is a relatively new discipline, compared with other disciplines in the NHS,” he says. “So, until recently it was facing a challenge to gain credibility. I think the Covid-19 crisis has changed all that.

“Before the outbreak, we were seeing some hospitals invest in good infrastructure and services and a few areas starting to use digital to change the delivery of care. During the outbreak, everything speeded up. Those organisations with good IT are really seeing the benefit of it, and we are seeing areas moving whole services and patient pathways online.

“Thankfully, all that has happened without any real problems with capacity or security, which is a tribute to all those involved. What we need to do now is to make sure that presence is maintained, and to make sure that everybody who is working in informatics is well trained, up to date, and ready to build on the work that has been done.”

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The role of FEDIP

The role of the Federation for Informatics Professionals in Health and Social Care, or FEDIP, in all this is to promote professionalism. The organisation grew out of discussions between membership organisations that wanted to promote professional standards in healthcare informatics and to secure recognition for those that met them.

FEDIP now maintains a register of informatics professionals working in health and social care and who are members of the BCS, CLIP, IRHM, and AphA. Informatics professionals can join at one of four levels – practitioner, senior practitioner, advanced practitioner and leading practitioner.

FEDIP’s website sets out in detail the competencies that they are expected to show at these levels, and the kind of evidence that they might put forward to prove them. Needless to say, a lot of work has gone into developing the standards and getting the register in place, much of it on a voluntary basis.

However, the organisation itself has now reached the point at which it needs to put itself on a firmer footing and Griffiths, who led the NHS Wales Informatics Service until the end of last year, effectively took on the job of doing this when he became its first chief executive just before Covid-19 outbreak hit.

Improving understanding of FEDIP

His first priority is to improve understanding of the organisation. “One of the misconceptions about FEDIP is that it is a membership body,” he says. “In a sense it is, but we are not asking people to become members of FEDIP. Instead, we are asking people to join the appropriate professional body for them, and then to join the register.

“For example, the BCS has about 68,000 members and some of them work in health, but the BCS is not a health specific body. FEDIP can bring them together and put them in touch with other people with an interest in healthcare, to discuss issues they have in common.”

As such, Griffiths acknowledges, he has a dual challenge when it comes to expanding the register: first, to persuade people to become a member of one of the relevant professional bodies and then to persuade them to join the FEDIP register.

But he hopes that, in time, people will come to see being able to register with FEDIP as one of the benefits of joining a professional body. Although to achieve that there may need to be an element of ‘pull’ from the NHS as well as ‘push’ from the informatics professionals working in it.

“Naturally, people ask ‘what is in this for me’,” he says. “I think that is the wrong question, because as professional people we should be looking to take our profession forward. However, we do need to address it, and to do that we need to get employers to ask employees to sign-up.

“They should be saying ‘we need to make sure that you are trained and up to date before you join, and this is the way we do it’ or ‘we need to make sure that we are promoting the right people, and this is how we do it.’ One of the challenges in our business plan is to speak to the NHS about how it can encourage people to belong and to reward that behaviour.”

A moment to embed informatics professionalism

Griffiths was ambitious for FEDIP even before the coronavirus outbreak. In a year, he was hoping that the organisation would have clarified its message and be gaining traction on the ground. Once the UK and its health services are through the worst of the crisis, he hopes that there will be “lessons learned” exercises for IT at both national and local level, and that professionalism will be part of that.

“In five-years, I would like to think that belonging to a professional body and being on the FEDIP register will be a de-facto standard,” he says. “To be a chief information officer, you should be a member of a professional body as a leader, and you should be encouraging your staff to be members. It should be part of ‘this is how we do things here’.”

Down the line, there may be a discussion about whether this should be mandatory. But Griffiths believes that with the right mix of push and pull factors “we could just get to the point where it is expected.”

“The current situation has highlighted the importance of digital technology to creating an NHS that is adaptable and that can respond to the changing expectations of staff and patients,” he says. “The challenge now is to build on the visibility and credibility that digital technology has gained, and to make sure the professionalism shown by the very best NHS IT teams is spread across the service.

“We need to create an environment in which more people come through into the professional bodies and onto the register, so the NHS knows it has an informatics profession that it can continue to rely on in the future.”

About FEDIP: There is more information about FEDIP on its website, fedip.org. Informatics professionals who are already members of the relevant professional bodies can apply to join the FEDIP register on the site. 

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