Planning the digital revolution

by James Hawkins

14 August 2019

The NHS long-term plan sets out an ambitious programme to transform the NHS with a new service model focused more on prevention and support and delivering joined-up care at the right time in the optimal setting. This summer, the HFMA has invited a number of commentators to address some of the key issues, challenges and opportunities in the plan. This week the focus is on the role of advances in digital technology in transforming healthcare.

The NHS is on the cusp of huge change. Advances in biology and technology are aligning to create phenomenal new opportunities to deliver transformational products and services. These have the potential to transform care, making it safer and more efficient – which helps healthcare professionals to do their jobs better, freeing up time to care for patients.

The NHS long-term plan offers a hugely exciting vision for the future of the NHS and sets out the ambitions for radical improvement in clinical care over the next decade. The foundations of the changes outlined in the long-term plan will be driven through the adoption of new technology.

One of the major focus areas of the long-term plan is the drive for patients to better manage their own health and care. There is a commitment to deliver a broad spectrum of digital services that will support individuals to take a much more proactive and responsible approach to monitoring their own health and wellbeing, and manage their personal response to these risks. Our services, such as NHS 111 online, the NHS App, and the NHS e-Referral service, are some of the tools helping to create a patient base that is more informed and empowered to manage their health and care.

The NHS App gives patients access to a range of healthcare services on their smartphone or tablet. The e-Referral service combines electronic booking with a choice of place, date and time for the first hospital or clinic appointment, realising significant cost savings through offering alternative ways of referring patients.

The digital transformation of our everyday lives has brought about some healthy debate regarding the ethical approach to the use of data. The relationship between health provider and patients has always been hallmarked by unbridled trust. Introducing innovative new treatments and a new model of healthcare based on digital technology needs to be supported by a significant catalyst for trust, to ensure it is fully embraced by both patients and healthcare professionals.

The long-term plan has also committed to putting the NHS back on a sustainable financial path. Technology can contribute through the economy of money and economy of time, however there will need to be a radical rethink on the use and adoption of digital technologies in the NHS. The technology should be based on open-source software, shared standards, APIs (building blocks which make it easier to develop computer programmes) and micro-services (which perform single tasks within a more complex application). It should be built on a foundation of highly reliable national platforms, allowing innovation to flourish.

This will mean we will all need to fundamentally change the way we operate to create an environment that will help the system benefit from the best ideas, technology and innovation wherever it is found – be that within health and care itself, nationally, from academia, or from innovative private sector companies that want to partner with us.

We have already begun the journey at NHS Digital and we are currently going through a transformation that will allow us to work in this new way and earn the right to continue to be digital, data and technology partner for the NHS.

In addition, we are committed to continue to support NHS organisations as they adopt new technology and digital systems while facing constant pressure to deliver critical services for patients.

We look forward to playing our part in this digital revolution of health and care services.