People across the country will benefit from faster, more-personalised healthcare following the announcement of a digital revolution to make the health and social care system fit for the 21st Century.
Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, this week launched the Plan for Digital Health and Social Care, which outlines the Government’s ambitious vision for transforming health and care with digital technology.
The document sets out how the Government will improve access to information for people and their care teams through the NHS App and NHS website – resulting in faster, more-personalised treatment.
This includes enabling people to view and manage hospital appointments, have virtual consultations, and see notifications from their GP.
The plan also outlines the acceleration of the use of digital technology across the NHS and social care to improve efficiency and free up frontline workers, helping to bust the COVID backlogs.
It is predicted that, by increasing the availability of remote monitoring – where patients can use technology to keep an eye on their condition from home – a further 500,000 people could be better supported by March 2023.
This plan for digital health and care sets out an ambitious vision for a future where the NHS puts more power and information at patients’ fingertips, and staff have the tools they need to deliver better and more-joined-up services for those who need them
The plan is backed by £2billion earmarked from the Spending Review to help digitise the NHS and social care sector.
And it will help achieve that aim by rolling out electronic patient records in the NHS to drive efficiency which, in turn, will release billions of pounds back to the NHS.
Javid said: “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 personalisation and better join up of the system will benefit patients, free up clinician time, and help us to bust the COVID backlogs.”
In addition to the investment in technology, the plan also recognises that frontline professionals are at the bedrock of health and social care services, so it will bolster the skills in the workforce by:
- Developing a national digital workforce strategy to bridge the skills gap and ensuring 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
The plan will also promote the use of digital health and social care records, which will underpin more seamless information sharing between care teams, including appropriate access to GP records for people working in care homes, such as registered managers.
Dr Timothy Ferris, national director of transformation at NHS England and NHS Improvement, said: “By harnessing the power of digital and data we can improve both how people access services and the way we provide care.
The plan presents an exciting opportunity not only to expand access to care via digital channels, but to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based technologies that will help make care more preventative, personalised, and empowering for patients
“This plan for digital health and care sets out an ambitious vision for a future where the NHS puts more power and information at patients’ fingertips, and staff have the tools they need to deliver better and more-joined-up services for those who need them.
“More than 28 million people now have the NHS App in their pocket. To support patients to access more-personalised care from home, new features will be added to the NHS App, enabling it to become a digital frontdoor to NHS services.”
As part of the App revamp, by March next year users will be able to book COVID-19 vaccines, see notifications and messages from their GP, and view and manager hospital elective care appointments.
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 three 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.”
The strategy has been widely welcomed.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders welcome the digital health and care strategy and see it as an important step in joining up health and social care records digitally under one roof.
“This is essential for enabling better system working and will allow vital data to be shared more widely, helping staff to deliver better care for patients.
Realising this vision will depend on a range of factors beyond the scope of the plan itself, not least tackling workforce and capacity pressures
“The plan presents an exciting opportunity not only to expand access to care via digital channels, but to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based technologies that will help make care more preventative, personalised, and empowering for patients.”
But she warned that the success of the project would depend on investment.
The task ahead will be challenging and must be done carefully not to exacerbate inequality,” she added.
It’s important that investment in IT infrastructure for the NHS continues and that systems are supported to implement these changes as they work hard to tackle the care backlogs.
“We hope that the forthcoming digital workforce strategy will help address recruitment and retention issues while making the NHS an attractive place to work for digital professionals.”
Dr Malte Gerhold, director of innovation and improvement at the Health Foundation, agreed, telling BBH: “Our research has found that, while most patients had a positive experience of the increased use of technology during the pandemic, for some groups, including those with a carer, the experience was less positive.
“Addressing these issues will be important to ensure that those who face particular barriers get the benefits from the increased use of technology.
“Achieving the plan’s ambitions will mean learning the lessons of previous initiatives that have struggled to deliver.
The delivery of virtual wards across England will enable more patients to benefit from quick, simple, and continuous access to healthcare professionals
“Many of the new service models proposed are about changing the way staff work and patients interact with services – so it is critical that local services are supported to redesign pathways and implement these changes in practice.
“Realising this vision will depend on a range of factors beyond the scope of the plan itself, not least tackling workforce and capacity pressures.
“If the NHS is to recover from the pandemic and become more resilient it will need significant resources, including a fully-funded, long-term workforce strategy and boosted capital investment to support new ways of working.”
Technology companies have also spoken out, with Chris Barker, chief executive of Spirit Health, welcoming the intention to increase use of virtual ward solutions.
He said: “The delivery of virtual wards across England will enable more patients to benefit from quick, simple, and continuous access to healthcare professionals, helping them to feel better connected and better cared for, all from the comfort of their own homes.
“Virtual ward technology can lead to reduced time spent in hospital and can even prevent some patients from visiting a hospital altogether – all without compromising on the quality of care that patients receive.
“Our virtual ward pilot project in Leicester, Leicestershire, and Rutland (LLR) supported 310 patients, and delivered an estimated saving of 1,103 bed days and £529,719 in net financial savings to date; and alongside these clinical results, we have also seen a noticeable improvement on patient wellbeing and independence.
"We are therefore delighted to welcome the Plan for Digital Health and Social Care, which will unleash the transformative potential of this technology across the NHS, improve patient health outcomes, and give patients greater choice over when, how, and from where they access care.”
Dr Rachael Grimaldi, chief executive and co-founder of CardMedic, added: “I’m pleased to see personalisation of care a central priority of the Digital Health and Care Plan, with a strong focus on reducing health disparities and improving access to care. After all, we are seeing the transformational impact technology is having on patients and clinicians through our customers every day.
"However, this does not mean that the path towards a joined-up health and care system will be without its challenges.
“As digital first becomes more prominent in health and care, it is important that we remain focused on inclusion.
"The pandemic revealed the extent of inequality experienced in this country and it is our job to do everything we can to make sure that no one is left unaccounted for.
"Digital technology can help to tackle this, but only if patients are central to the design and delivery of these solutions.
We are ready to work side by side with trusts, integrated care systems, and other industry partners to unlock the full potential of digital tools, and play our part in a nationwide plan to reduce health inequality
“Personalising care and reducing health inequality go hand in hand, and achieving both of these things will require a collaborative approach.
"We are ready to work side by side with trusts, integrated care systems, and other industry partners to unlock the full potential of digital tools, and play our part in a nationwide plan to reduce health inequality.”
And Paula Ridd, general manager for the UK and Ireland at Altera Digital Health, told BBH: “This plan does a good job of bringing together the various priorities outlined in recent similar policies and strategies.
"The difference between this iteration and those that have recently preceded it is that it appears to be backed up by the realistic funding needed to progress the core digital transformation required, such as rolling out electronic patient records for the least-digitally-mature organisations.
"However, when it comes to how we can accelerate digital transformation in the immediate term, I feel the plan falls short.”
“Better use of clinically-driven technology and data to support decision making and managing population health could make a significant difference to the way in which the health and care system uses its resources; as could enforcing open standards so care providers can buy technology in confidence that it will support, rather than prevent life-long joined up care records that are so important to sustainable digitally-enabled care.
“Realising this vision will depend not just on making the right decisions about technology, but by broadening the digital leadership in health and care. To this end, I am excited to see how the National Digital Workforce Strategy will support the ambitions of the plan.”