Health Service Focus

04.10.17

Digital NHS: from press release to reality

Source: NHE Sep/Oct 17

NHE’s Josh Mines reports from NHS Expo 2017, where the digital transformation of the health service was at the top of the agenda. 

Unsurprisingly, the topic of digital transformation and the future modernisation of NHS records, systems and services was a key talking point at NHS Expo 2017. 

In a year where trusts had to deal with one of the largest cyber security threats in NHS history, make preparations to go paperless and hear countless jokes about the health service being the world’s biggest purchaser of pagers and fax machines, it was clear that swift changes needed to be delivered to bring the sector into the 21st century. 

But for NHS leaders, it seems there’s a level of optimism that changes can and already are being slowly made. 

In his much-anticipated keynote, health secretary Jeremy Hunt set a number of ambitious targets for organisations to meet by the end of 2018 – the year the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday. Services such as NHS 111, medical records and GP appointment bookings, according to Hunt, should all be available to every patient in England via an app. 

“If the NHS is going to be the safest, highest-quality healthcare system in the world, we need to do technology better,” he said. “I do not underestimate the challenge of getting there – but if we do it will be the best possible 70th birthday present from the NHS to its patients.” 

Trusts are making progress 

Similarly, Matthew Swindells, NHS England’s national director for operations and information, argued that all organisations have a better sense of partnership with their IT departments than they did a year ago, and all are moving forwards when it comes to digital reform. 

But there is still large variation in the rate of change across the country, despite pioneers like the global digital exemplars. “We have some brilliant sustainability and transformation partnerships who are at the leading edge of change and some who are struggling to build those partnerships,” Swindells stated. “If we can build on that and the use of tech and IT to accelerate what we’re doing, we can make a big change.” 

But the main goal should always be to develop a system tailored to individual needs. “The focus is on the patient, self-care and on empowering their carers to look after them,” he explained. “We are opening up a system of development so that while we centrally give people access to their data, people can start to create solutions that will work for individuals.

“It’s about how we create a hub that brings data together at a local level, building on the best of what is happening to get the best view of the patient.” 

Data as the key to care outcomes 

Though empowerment of the patient is the main goal, Swindells also spoke about the smart ways that data can be joined up and used by clinicians across the country to improve outcomes. The idea underpinning these hubs is for organisations to release anonymised data that can then be used for research and management. “We can move from management meetings that spend more time talking about what needs to be done and less time arguing about whose spreadsheet is accurate,” the NHS director argued. 

What is vital for NHS leaders to be aware of, according to Swindells, is that technological reform is real and already in its delivery phase – and organisations should be ready and willing to back it up. 

“Tech is becoming real rather than just a press release, and we have a sense of focus and partnership emerging in the NHS that plays from our core value,” he concluded. “We have a focus on the patient that is showing across the country.” 

If this is going to succeed, there needs to be not just a change in systems and technology, but also a new way of working and a forward-thinking, positive mindset to the switch to digital. Whilst the rhetoric around a modern health service is good to hear, these words need to be converted into action if the NHS is to shake off those jokes about dusty pagers and fax machines by the time it celebrates its 70th birthday.

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