Four ways to maximise the benefits of digital, data, and technology in health and care before the next election
Victoria Atkins MP has been named as the new Health and Social Care Secretary. With a daunting task ahead, technology will be key to meeting government targets before the next election.
Key targets include resolving the continued industrial action from junior doctors, bringing down the mounting NHS waiting lists for elective care, and striving to increase productivity across the health and care workforce.
With an election taking place in 2024, and these pledges at the forefront of the government’s agenda, it is imperative that Atkins maximises the potential benefits of the digital, data, and technology innovations the UK has to offer.
With the dust still settling on the merger of NHS Digital, NHSX, and Health Education England (HEE) into NHS England, significant time has been lost and resources consumed over the past 12 months. Alongside these changes within the NHS, we have seen a recent raft of government announcements on digital skills and funding for AI, currently focussed on increasing diagnostic capacity. There is a need to think more wholistically about how and where technology is best utilised to achieve the best health and care outcomes. For example, there is a risk that funding such as the £21 million for rolling out AI diagnostic tools for lung cancer may result in increased waiting lists without additional capacity for treatment, if implemented in isolation.
With this in mind, here are 4 key areas the new Secretary of State should prioritise before the next election:
1. Lay the groundwork for the widespread adoption of AI
It has been a prerequisite this year for any digital health conference that artificial intelligence (AI) is front and centre. To meet the growing demands of an ageing population and tackle the exponentially increasing unmet demand on health and care services, sector, making the most of such technologies will be vital. AI has the potential to help release staff time back into vital patient-facing and operational services, improve diagnostics (in terms of precision and capacity), and increase the efficiency and productivity of overwhelmed health and care systems.
However, prior to rolling out the latest technological advances such as AI, it is key that the groundwork is laid by ensuring all NHS trusts and social care providers have reached a minimum standard of digital maturity. While over 90% of NHS trusts now having an electronic patient record (EPR), only 50% all social care providers have adopted digital social care records. The UK must keep advancing the pace and reach of health and social care record digitisation, whilst also recognising that digital maturity goes beyond this. As reported by the Health Service Journal in July, just three Integrated Care Systems out of 42 scored higher than a 3 out of 5 on NHS England’s digital maturity score assessment.
Additionally, it is crucial that healthcare workers’ confidence in and understanding of AI is developed– not just focussing on clinicians, but also broader allied health professionals and non-clinical staff. HEE’s reports on understanding and developing healthcare workers confidence in AI have outlined the need for AI-related education and training.
2. Provide clarity for the digital health and care industry
Providing clarity for business on government strategy regarding the funding, regulation, and rollout of digital health and care technologies is key to getting the most out of these innovations.
techUK members are eager to see the final iteration of the NHS Standards and Interoperability Strategy, as well as the Digital Workforce Plan. The NHS Long-term Workforce Plan contains excellent promises regarding upskilling the health and care professionals on technology, but the government must provide the additional detail promised to help provide industry with the clarity needed to continue investing in bringing the best products possible to the UK.
techUK has worked closely with industry on the draft Standards and Interoperability Strategy and continues to feed into the final iteration. With the sharing of health data and the closer integration of NHS, social care, and key related services at the forefront of recent legislation leading to the formation of Integrated Care Systems, achieving greater interoperability is key to unlocking wider benefits of digital innovations.
3. Ensure digital leadership at a local level
The recent Digital Maturity Assessment conducted by NHS England, found that 88% of providers now have a CIO, CDIO, or digital lead equivalent, while 59% have a non-executive responsible for digital. Whilst this is excellent progress, the government should aim for every provider to have a digital lead, to ensure that innovations are driven forward at a local level.
Further to this, and as recommended in techUK’s flagship report Right from the Start, Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) should look to establish digital transformation committees, including representatives from social care and clinical teams. The Health and Care Act 2022 sets out that ICBs will have the flexibility to determine governance arrangements in their area – including the ability to create committees and delegate functions. Innovations can be triaged via this committee, so that companies providing services and products across the wide spectrum of digital and technology know who they need to talk to and what the requirements are for deploying their innovations across the system, accounting for local priorities and requirements.
4. Ringfence funding for digital, data and technology
Whilst there have been several positive funding announcements for health and care innovations over the past 18 months, this period has also been peppered with several stories revealing the raiding of digital budgets. It is absolutely crucial that funding for digital health and care is ringfenced, and that technology is not viewed as a disposable or reversible investment.
Responding to cuts on the planned rollout of tech across the NHS in July 2022, Julian David (CEO of techUK), said: “Digital transformation is not a ‘nice to have’ for our health service, but a fundamental pillar that we must have in place in order to tackle the challenges of an ageing population, an estimated elective care backlog of 6.5 million, and a social care sector facing serious staff shortages. Digital transformation creates much needed efficiencies for NHS staff, freeing up their time and resources for patient care, and enabling data sharing across systems that will allow the UK to adopt the population health approach set out by Government.
“It has never been more important to digitise and modernise the way the UK provides care, and we cannot afford to slow down now.”
Health and Social Care Programme
With health and care systems around the globe facing increasing pressures, the use of digital technology has never been more important. Supporting a vibrant ecosystem with the potential to become a world leader, techUK is helping its members navigate the complex space of digital health and care in the UK and ensure our NHS is prepared for the challenges of the future.
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