The NHS’s 74th birthday celebrations were abruptly cut short yesterday as the news broke that Health Secretary Sajid Javid had resigned. He was not the only one to leave the cabinet – Rishi Sunak also handed in his resignation along with numerous other party members.
One of Sajid Javid’s final major policy decisions as Health Secretary was to publish a plan for digital health and social care at the end of June. This plan ‘will make sure the NHS is set up to meet the challenges of 2048, not of 1948, when it was first established.’ The plan will be implemented by Javid’s newly appointed successor, Steve Barclay. The former chief of staff at Number 10 was appointed to the role as part of a rapid reshuffle that followed yesterday’s unexpected wave of resignations.
What does the digital health and social care plan entail?
The plan does not contain any revolutionary ideas or overnight changes; what it does do is combine various initiatives and present the government’s overall ambitions for the NHS in one coherent package. This clear and coherent plan will hopefully provide ‘a clear steer’ for clinical and organisational decision-making moving forward.
In short, the plan for digital health and social care aims to equip the system with the digital tools needed to deliver better care. This will involve scaling existing proven tech solutions and accelerating their adoption in other trusts and organisations. An accompanying Cyber Security Strategy for Health and Social Care is set to be published in Winter 2022.
Dr Timothy Ferris, National Director of Transformation, commented that ‘COVID-19 has shown us that having the right digital and data tools at the NHS’s disposal can be as important as having the right medicines in our formularies.’ With the importance of digital health solutions in mind, this new plan aims to bring the digital elements of the NHS out of the shadows and into the limelight. Much of the work NHS Digital does occurs behind the scenes and goes largely unnoticed by members of the public, but the plan is now to put digital elements at the front and centre of the public’s interactions with the NHS.
The goal is to see 75% of adults registered with the NHS App by March 2024. Substantial progress has been made already: ‘over 28 million people now have the NHS App in their pocket, over 40 million people have an NHS login, and most NHS trusts have an electronic patient record system in place.’ Sajid Javid hoped to see the NHS App become more than just a companion to NHS services, instead becoming a core element that provides a digital ‘front door’ to the NHS. Putting NHS services in people’s pockets will support people to live independent healthy lives and open pathways to digital self-help, diagnostics and therapies.
Beyond the NHS App, the plan contains a vast array of other initiatives including ‘£2 billion of funding to support electronic patient records to be in all NHS trusts, and help over 500,000 people to use digital tools to manage their long-term health conditions in their own homes.’ More digital funding will be given to ICSs over time so that, by 2025, the entire system will be ‘equipped to deliver the benefits of digital transformation to all.’
Responding to the publication of the plan, Dr Malte Gerhold, Director of Innovation and Improvement at the Health Foundation, said:
‘This Plan is a welcome consolidation of the myriad of workstreams on tech and digital going on across the NHS and social care – which if properly aligned could add up to a good deal more than the sum of their parts. Steps like making better use of technology and data to support clinical decision making and manage population health could make a big difference to improving both quality of care and the way in which the health and care system uses its resources.’
Equitable digital transformation
Sajid Javid stressed the importance of ensuring that, when these technologies are put in place, people are confident and supported in using them. Equipping all patients with the necessary tools and skills to access these systems will be integral to ensuring their effectiveness.
Ensuring everyone benefits equally also requires upskilling staff within the sector. The digital workforce strategy laid out within the plan has a ‘relentless focus’ on digital skills and leadership and culture, at all levels, so that transformation is ‘durable across the board.’
‘Digitally mature’ care providers (those with more digital experience than others) must continue to share their knowledge with those at earlier stages of their digital journey ‘in order to achieve a broader state of digital maturity throughout the health and care system.’ This system-wide effort will help ensure that digital adoption equally benefits people across the UK and does not just serve certain pockets of the population.
The government acknowledges that this plan is the latest of many attempts to digitally transform the NHS over the past 20 years, but believes that the learnings from these past attempts are what put them in a good place to truly deliver on this latest plan. While the abrupt change of Health Secretary a mere week after the plan was announced may cause some initial bumps in the road, the digital future of the NHS remains promising.
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