The British Government has unveiled its plans for transforming health and social care with digital technology, as it seeks to build on the momentum it has seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, where millions of citizens signed up for the NHS App to book vaccine appointments and access health records.
The pandemic has proven that there is appetite amongst the general public to engage digitally with the NHS and that change can be implemented rapidly, where there’s genuine need. However, as we’ve seen many times before, implementing consistent technological change across the NHS is no small feat - as there is serious legacy to contend with, in addition to having to navigate a fragmented organization with many disparate structures.
However, this week the Department of Health and Social Care published its ‘plan for digital health and social care’, which calls for a rapid expansion of the use of technology, including remote monitoring and virtual wards, in a bid to drive efficiency, free up hospital space and clinician time, and to help deal with the COVID-19 backlog.
The aim is to both upgrade the systems that run the NHS, consistently moving towards integrated electronic health records, as well as providing patients with more personalized care using digital tools.
The government said that the NHS App will be updated with new features offering better care from home, such as increasing patients’ access to their records and enabling notifications directly from their GP, and that the digital reforms could save billions in taxpayers’ money.
Commenting on the new plans, Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said:
We are embarking on a radical programme of modernisation that will make sure the NHS is set up to meet the challenges of 2048 – not 1948, when it was first established.
This plan builds on our data strategy to revolutionise digital health and care, which will enable patients to manage hospital appointments from the NHS App and take more control of their own care at home, picking up problems sooner and seeking help earlier.
Ensuring more personalization and better join up of the system will benefit patients, free up clinician time, and help us to bust the COVID backlogs.
The plan details how the NHS aims to improve access to information for people and their care teams through the NHS App and NHS website, which includes bringing information together into the app, allowing people to view and manage their hospital appointments, have virtual consultations, and receive notifications.
The reforms also hope to improve efficiency and free up frontline workers’ time. One way in which this is hoped to be achieved is through the increased use of remote monitoring - where patients use digital tools to monitor their condition from home. The strategy states that 500,000 people could be supported this way by March 2023.
Some £2 billion was set aside during the spending review to digitize the NHS and social care sector, which the government hopes will lead to savings beyond that figure.
The plan states that:
90% of NHS trusts should have electronic health records by December 2023, and 100% by March 2025
80% of CQC-registered adult social care providers should have digital care records by March 2024
Constituent organizations of an Integrated Care System (ICS) should be connected to an integrated life-long health and care record by 2024, enabled by core national capabilities, local health records and shared care records, giving individuals, their approved caregivers and their care team the ability to view and contribute to the record
Every ICS should have implemented a population health and planning data platform, and business intelligence tools by 2023
Data for research and development should be available through a federated network of trusted research environments (TREs) by March 2025
The NHS App should be a front door for interacting with the NHS and receiving personalized services, with 75% of adults registered for the NHS App by March 2024 and benefitting from an array of new features
Prevention and detection technologies should be used to protect the 20% of care home residents who are identified as at high risk of falls by 2024
The right assurance and commercial foundations should be put in place by 2025 to stimulate a thriving innovation ecosystem that fosters collaboration between the health and social care sectors and the tech industry
In addition to the investment in technology, the plan also sets out plans for frontline professionals. The government hopes to bolster the skills in the workforce by:
Developing a national digital workforce strategy to bridge the skills gap and ensure the NHS remains an attractive place to work
Growing the specialist data and tech workforce through graduates, apprentices and experienced hires, creating an additional 10,500 positions
Embedding digital skills development into university curriculums to support our future and incoming workforce
Providing a digital learning offer for adult social care staff, such as offering accessible training and online resources
Commenting on the plans, Simon Bolton, Chief Executive at NHS Digital, said:
Technology is central in empowering patients and giving them more control when it comes to their health and wellbeing.
The NHS App has changed the way millions of adults in England access healthcare services in the 3 years since its launch and these new features will go further to improve how patients can manage their health and to reduce the burden on the frontline.
We are committed to working with our partners across health and social care to deliver the digitally enabled transformation of the NHS and create a system which provides better outcomes and access for patients.
We’ve been here many, many times before. The government has a track record of making grand tech announcements for the NHS, but then failing to make any real sustainable changes that support cost savings and better care for patients. The NHS is a fragmented, complex organization that has been woefully under-resourced for years. Those working in the NHS are time strapped and finding space to implement change isn’t easy.
But there is a lot to like about this latest plan. It puts digital at the center of the NHS’s work and has clear objectives for what it hopes to achieve. Equally, it gives flexibility for individual organizations to adopt tools that work for them, as long as they adhere to the mandated standards.
There’s also a real appetite from citizens to digitally engage with their healthcare options and the NHS has benefited from huge swathes of the population signing up to the NHS App, as a result of COVID-19.
But the key thing is that at this point digital is a necessity for the NHS. The UK has an ageing population and COVID-19 has put healthcare delivery under a huge amount of pressure. Digital provides a path forward for achieving a sustainable healthcare system, if the plans can be executed.