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19.09.18

Dickson: Hancock finds an NHS in need of digital rebirth

Source: NHE Sept/Oct 2018

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, takes a look at Matt Hancock's priorities and agenda around workforce, technology and prevention.

A tech transformation is coming, according to the new health secretary. Matt Hancock was secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport for just six short months before being called up during the recent reshuffle.

Very shortly after taking up his new role, he has positioned himself as a moderniser, innovator and incubator for new technologies in the NHS. Alongside workforce and prevention, technology (if his time as minister for digital is anything to go by) will be his raison d’être.

Just as Jeremy Hunt made patient safety his number-one priority, his successor is clear that overseeing a digital revolution in health and care will be his legacy.

Healthcare is highly tech-dependent – it may be a ‘people’ service, but whether it is medicines, devices or other interventions, the cutting edge of everything we do is determined by new technology. It may seem strange, therefore, that we have been slow to embrace the digital revolution, and there are still signs of resistance all over the sector.

This has been epitomised in the oft-quoted quip that “the NHS is the biggest buyer of fax machines in Europe.” Sadly, it is not a myth. A recent poll by the Royal College of Surgeons covering three-quarters of trusts in England found that nearly 9,000 of these antiquated devices were still in use.

The pace of change has quickened, but if we are to have any hope of meeting the considerable challenges that lie ahead, the speed and scale of engagement has to move to a different level. 

The potential is enormous and as yet not fully explored. Nor will it merely help us to do what we do more effectively; it will change what is done and by whom. For example, the Department of Health and Social Care has commissioned an NHS app – due to be launched in December this year – allowing GP appointments to be booked and repeat prescriptions to be ordered.

Mobile technology is already affecting the way community nurses and others deliver care, but remote monitoring and artificial intelligence will transform care provided in patients’ homes, and streamline back-office functions. Data will transform the way services are targeted and run.

As has often been observed, the future is already with us and there are already plenty of examples where new technology is disrupting the traditional ways in which we go about our business.

Some of this is exciting, some basic. Recent research into e-rostering by the Workforce Development Expert Group cites the savings made by one trust which changed its approach to rostering. Using e-rostering to coordinate its workforce, it not only reduced staff unavailability by around 3.3% per annum, but also produced £2.1m in savings.

Similarly, digitalisation of patient records and the adoption of shared IT systems is on the way – a vital precondition of effective integration.

So what now for the new secretary of state? Priorities in tow, Hancock has his sights set on achieving that “Holy Trinity of improving outcomes, helping clinicians and saving money.”

With his tech credentials well established, he can provide leadership and support, though change will only gather momentum if driven by local leaders. Previous efforts to ‘modernise’ the service have met with limited success, with many citing a lack of funds, adoption or vision as the reason the service has found it so difficult to move forward at the right pace.

The secretary of state’s challenge now will be to set the right tone. Imposing solutions from the centre is unlikely to work. Instead, it must be about leading a movement which embraces a different future, and which accepts that technology in all its forms will be more important than ever before if we are to create a health and care system that is sustainable and meets the needs of our changing population.

 

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