Published date: 26 September 2022

Using innovative technologies to optimise the NHS Estate

Roslyn Churchill, Chief Information Officer, spoke to the National Health Executive about technology and the NHS Estate

Technology’s role in driving efficiency in the NHS is increasingly clear, but what does it mean for the NHS estate? The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the potential technology has across the NHS. The opportunities seem endless, with tools like AI helping to tackle the elective care backlog and carry out virtual GP consultations, as well as a widespread digitalisation of existing services. This month’s Goldacre review highlighted the power of cutting edge health data and the lifesaving role it can play. As exciting as these changes seem, it is important to understand how technology can complement our current operations and to not just think about it as a solution in itself.

In such an age of digital transformation, where space is a valuable commodity, aligning technology and the NHS estate to better understand and maximise space is becoming increasingly important. Identifying underutilised areas and making them more accessible will benefit both patients and NHS staff, by reducing waiting times, cutting back on costs, and offering service providers spaces that suit their clinical and operational needs, so they can work in more flexible ways. 


Community care needs flexibility

Health and wellbeing services are now seeking more flexible access to spaces that are closer to
communities, and often must spend time and resources securing sessional space across a range of
Primary Care buildings. These services are delivered by a range of providers that do not require exclusive
use of this space, and the ability to book rooms on a flexible basis offers a cost-effective solution to their
property needs.

This will not only benefit clinical staff, but also deskbased staff who, rather than costly permanent bases,can instead opt for greater flexibility and adopt smarter working practices. In addition, as the NHS moves towards models of more integrated care, it needs an estate bolstered by technology to facilitate this collaboration, making best use of space for multiple bodies across health, wellbeing, and community services.

Optimising the NHS estate is a significant and everchanging challenge, but as owners of 10% of the NHS estate, NHS Property Services (NHSPS) has a wealth of data and experience to work from that has allowed us to develop innovative solutions that identify and transform vacant space. Bringing PropTech to the NHS Estate NHSPS recognised an evolving demand for the NHS estate, and our role in maximising usage of primary care buildings to offer a broad range of services in local health hubs. We came up with a simple solution; if our spaces were not being used to full capacity by their existing NHS occupiers, we should make them available for other NHS bodies and wider health and wellbeing services through a simple, digital platform.

After a two-year pilot, we launched NHS Open Space, a digital booking platform and on-site support programme that enables the flexible booking of sessional space, offering pay-as-you-go access to a wide range of health, wellbeing, and community services.

Beyond our online room booking platform, NHS Open Space uses ‘teletracking’ which involves the use of infrared sensors to track movement in our rooms. This data is then monitored by local operational teams to assess true utilisation – instead of just relying on booking data – so our teams and our customers can identify gaps between booking and usage to ensure a more efficient use of space. This type of real time data enabled us to quickly provide additional capacity during COVID-19, identifying areas of underutilised space which could quickly be repurposed and made available for treatment, testing, vaccination, and administrative support. Looking at a longer-term, more strategic angle, the data is also allowing us to optimise the estate, supporting strategic asset management decisions made with our customers.

Technology and Facilities Management

For NHSPS, NHS Open Space is just one of many technological solutions that are at the forefront of our estate operations. We recently launched a new online portal called Connect, giving customers an easy way to log Facilities Management jobs and raise queries. The platform enables NHSPS to collect more data on the issues customers are facing, which can be used to identify trends and fix problems at the cause. This in turn resulting in greater support for service providers across the estate. Over the next year, we will be releasing a number of other features to provide customers with more information at their fingertips, including the ability to access compliance reporting on our FM services, occupancy data, billing information and support guides. More internal-facing technology is also transforming how we work and support our customers. One key example is our Power Apps platform, through which we are automating and standardising processes to help drive efficiencies, manage compliance in a more robust way, and simplify how we work together.

So far, we have used applications to improve and simplify our audit process for cleaning and fire safety, and have further releases planned for Health & Safety audits, capturing inspection certificates, and assessments for tenants exiting a property. Creating an enabling culture for digital transformation.

These recent innovations demonstrate the potential technology holds for our entire workforce, including our frontline colleagues. Our 5,000-strong frontline team are increasingly using technology to interact with one another and the estate, becoming a more agile workforce who are equipped with smartphones and have access to the same digital resources as our desk-based colleagues. They benefit from a range of communication channels that not only help them with day-to-day tasks, but also keep them more engaged with the wider business through internal communications and learning and development opportunities.

Equipping our frontline teams with phones has been a transformative experience for many colleagues, 90% of which are cleaners, porters, and caterers. The average age of our workforce in frontline roles is 50 and over, and so for the first time in their careers we are asking them to use technology as part of their day-to-day role. This is an opportunity to both upskill our workforce and give our colleagues skills for life – whether that’s having the confidence to use search engines or book an online GP appointment. A national programme for life skills is being delivered later this year across NHSPS, to embed the use of technology skills in communities which would otherwise not have used it. Beyond just our frontline colleagues, technological changes have been made possible through our smarter working policy which has been crucial in driving efficiencies. Across the country, traditional office spaces have been transformed into smarter working hubs, empowering a more flexible workforce, and giving them the right spaces to be more productive as well as support their wellbeing. The policy has resulted in improved technological systems, increased sustainability and greater trust and productivity amongst our colleagues.

What does the future hold for technology in NHS? The importance of having a flexible estate was highlighted during the pandemic when bed capacity was reorganised at short notice to support ICUs. Building on these learnings and using the data that we have on patient footfall, user types and capacity, we can make tackling the elective backlog a feasible objective over the coming years. Technology now underpins many of our operations on the estate, but we need a clear vision across the NHS to guide us going forward. This means integrating technology into estate planning so that future developments properly accommodate technology such as NHS Open Space. This will be a key consideration for Integrated Care Systems as they formulate their clinical and estate strategies, and NHS Property Services is keen to work with our customers to close the gap between estate and technology horizon planning.


This article was first published by the National Health Executive