The rise of the “digital plumber,” and what it means for our healthcare

Stephen EastStephen East is a Programme Lead and Senior Technical Architect at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust. Having previously struggled to describe his role and what it means for digital health, he has re-branded himself as the “digital plumber.” Here, he explains why.

Buzzwords describing my role include: architect, transformation, interoperability, population health, shared records, mobile devices, EHR, un/structured data, analytics, real-time dashboard, apps, portals, transformation, service improvement. The list goes on, but I still find myself looking at confused faces.

Recently someone compared me to a plumber, and I’ve realised this describes me perfectly. I am a “digital plumber”. Plumbers make sure that water flows from A to B by connecting pipes and fixing the leaks when they appear. I make sure data flows from A to B, connecting multiple systems and suppliers, health and care professionals and patients and fix the “leaks” when they appear.

Stages of digital plumbing in population health programmes

To improve wellbeing and prevent illness, we need to work with local communities to draw all the organisations and groups together to find solutions. This is what is meant when I talk about “population health.”

Just like in plumbing, there are several stages to bring everything together:

  1. Find the leaky pipes

It’s vital to identify the gaps in care:

  • What are the biggest health concerns for the citizens we care for?
  • Can we make any connections between the issues of our citizens, highlighting areas of care that need improvement?
  • What are the priorities to ensure these improvements are made?
  • How will we know the change will make a difference?
  1. Connect the pipes

My role needs to engage with a range of stakeholders; effectively communicating with citizens, care professionals and executives, and proving the value it adds to the success of a programme.

  • Do our citizens understand the data behind our focus? E.g. increased diagnoses of diabetes leads to a diabetes management initiative
  • Do the care professionals understand how to use the data in a meaningful way? E.g. identifying missed screenings
  • Do our executives understand the benefits that the changes in policies and procedures will bring to their organisations? E.g. introduction of video consultations making accessing care more convenient
  1. Turn on the tap: achieving success

To establish a sustainable system and allow for future possibilities, accountability must be ensured:

  • Did the initiative align with our population’s needs?
  • Were the interventions effective?
  • Did the population’s health outcomes improve?
  • If so, did they improve as much as we predicted in our planning stage? If not, what needs to improve?

When it comes to plumbing, there are a handful of simple jobs that do not require a call out. However, there are more complex tasks that do. Fiddling with your home’s plumbing could have disastrous consequences that could leave you more out of pocket to fix than if you had called the plumber in the first place.

With a Population Health programme bringing together disparate data sources and systems to make them coherent to form a single source of the truth requires specialist skills. Enter: The Digital Plumber.