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‘There’s no going back’: How Belfast Health and Social Care Trust is reimagining patient care during Covid-19


This pandemic has changed every single aspect of our lives and our healthcare system is no different.

With the introduction of social-distancing, remote working and extended lockdowns, health and social care workers had to adapt how they complete their everyday tasks to keep vital services running.

To find out more we caught up with Paul Duffy, Co-Director of IT and Telecommunications at Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and Frank O’Donnell, Public Sector Lead with Microsoft Ireland, to talk about the monumental impact Covid-19 has had on the healthcare sector and how virtual consultations became a much-needed lifeline.

A virtual lifeline

Belfast Trust is the largest integrated health and social care trust in the United Kingdom, employing 23,000 people who help treat over 340,000 patients across more than 100 hospital and facilities in Northern Ireland. When Covid-19 hit last March, they realised their everyday processes would have to change.

“Everyone across healthcare faces the same challenges, and this period has made things more difficult and dangerous than ever,” Paul explains. “We knew Covid-19 was coming since last January. We thought as long as we could do our jobs two meters apart, we could still put patients first – that was the culture of our organisation at the time.

“But the minute lockdown started in March last year, we needed a new solution. A way to still get together and make decisions, and if anything, make them faster than we’ve ever had to before. For us, that was Microsoft Teams.”

Responding to a global crisis

Thankfully, Belfast Trust had begun a cloud-first digital transformation back in 2018. During that year they started implementing Microsoft 365 across the organisation and trialling new innovative ways of working, like using Microsoft Teams for virtual consultations.

“We worked closely to support the Trust’s response, along with our partners, and provided tools to give the best insights to help inform decision making at senior levels,” explains Frank O’Donnell, Public Sector Lead with Microsoft Ireland.

With nearly 5,000 clinics to align to this new way of working and a variety of security and data regulations to meet, the project team had to move gradually – planning a significant multi-year change management and adoption programme before moving ahead. Then Covid-19 hit, and timings went out the window.

“Fortunately, the hard work had already been done before Covid-19, so we were ready to implement Teams when the time came,” Paul states. “The fact that it was cloud based made it a real winner – an instant way to support meetings from home and make sure important decisions weren’t delayed. And with integration into other Microsoft 365 tools, we could easily manage a range of devices remotely and always align with our own governance and security regulations.

“With everyone already starting to work from home we didn’t have time for the roll-out we planned, so our first job was making sure Teams was the only platform everyone was using across Belfast Trust.”


A digital roll-out for remote working

Staff across Belfast Trust used a specially-created Power App to choose relevant training sessions and to attend them through Microsoft Teams, helping show not only how team meetings could continue online, but also how live events, such as patient support groups, could be adapted during the lockdown.

“By May we had it all delivered, helping prepare us for the peak period over the summer,” explains Keren Moleon, Systems Specialist at Belfast Trust. “Overnight people didn’t need IT’s help anymore – and were instead asking us for more features.”

Continuing patient care from a distance

With strict social distancing rules now in place, Belfast Trust needed to help support patients remotely and continue providing face-to-face care in a secure way.

Belfast Trust worked with Microsoft and PA Consulting to evolve this into a more scalable solution that is integrated through the Trust’s Microsoft 365 platform, including automations to collect patient information and record consultations, with all data securely stored in the hospitals Electronic Patient Record (EPR) system.

“Starting with a focus on patient care, the work we carried out with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust provides a compelling example of how using the right technology in the right way can have a significant positive and sustainable impact on the delivery of that care,” explains Andrew Jaminson, Partner at PA Consulting. “In addition to providing an alternative way for care to continue from a distance during COVID-19, it has set a framework to provide service users with additional choice and a better experience, setting new service expectations for both patients and clinicians, in a way which will last for many years to come.”

“We’ve already had success using this new system within our paediatric neurosurgery, hepatology liver transplant, adult neurology and thoracic sleep medicine clinic and now we’re in the process of rolling it out across the rest of our organisation,” Keren states proudly.

“Many of our patients actually prefer these virtual consultations as they can stay where they are. For us, knowing we’re delivering a service that is wrapped in a Microsoft security blanket will help us make Teams a more permanent part of our outpatients process in the future.”

Changing patient healthcare forever

With Covid-19 putting digital dependence at front and centre of the healthcare sector, organisations like Belfast Trust are continuing to embrace technology and find new ways to help and treat patients. It’s a shift that has changed the people as well as the trust and is something Paul Duffy doesn’t think will stop there.

“Now that we’ve embraced digital as far as communication and decision making is concerned, there’s no going back,” he states.

“It’s like that old World War poster, ‘Daddy, what did you do in the war?’ – I want our team to feel very proud of what we did to contribute to healthcare during this period. We’re not directly saving lives like people on the frontline, but take away Microsoft Teams, and our response as an organisation would have been very different.”

“Helping health systems across the island of Ireland to adapt and ultimately digitally transform their services, will future proof patient delivery for years to come,” concluded Frank.

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