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How technology is changing our business

We’ve launched our new website this week, using a new and improved platform – that looks lots better than before, has more (and better organised) information, and is much more straightforward for us to use and update.  Hopefully more straightforward for the user too.  Another example of how technology is moving forwards, and making life easier all the time.

That’s made me reflect on how technology affects our business too.

Virtually every aspect of our work has fundamentally changed over the last few years because of technology.  We send out well over a million questionnaires every year, and for all survey programmes, questionnaires, letters, language leaflets and reminders are all automatically collated, enveloped and sent out using specially designed and programmed inserting machinery.  Very little human intervention is needed apart from programming the computers (gone are the days of having teams of people spending days at a time stuffing envelopes…).

Questionnaires have QR codes that enable our scanners to read them when they’re returned, so that we know who’s replied – and so that our machines can automatically send out reminders to those who haven’t.  Our scanning software also ‘reads’ the data on questionnaires directly into our databases – and into our verification system, where our staff can check any inconsistencies and make corrections where necessary.

At the reporting end, much of the process of taking results from our databases into reports is automated. We still produce ‘static’ reports in word and powerpoint for clients who want them; but increasingly our clients prefer to view and analyse their own data (and produce their own reports) on our bespoke reporting and analysis portal, SOLAR.

But where technology hasn’t yet moved so quickly is at the data collection stage.  The bulk of the data we collect still comes through paper questionnaires.  Of course, we provide many different modes of collection too.  We run surveys by telephone for some clients; many collect some or all of their responses through our on-line survey tools; we’re trialling SMS in places; and have tablet computers in some hospitals (for example to collect PROMs data).  The use of all of these is increasing, and will continue to – probably at quite a rapid pace.  But for the majority of our clients, it’s still really important to collect data on paper: partly because of the cost (cheaper than electronic solutions in many cases); partly because of the ease of use; and partly because it’s simply what more patients prefer – and so it leads to higher response rates.

AgeUK recently carried out some research on older people’s use of the internet: http://www.go-on.co.uk/news-and-views/latest-news/internet-use-amongst-older-people-subject-north-south-divide/.  There’s certainly an increase, but this appears to be happening at very different rates in different parts of the country.  In parts of the South East, 63% of older people use the internet; but in the North East, it’s only 28%.  Until both of these numbers are much higher, running surveys entirely on-line is going to be tricky…