The UK government has been trying to actively drive digital transformation programmes in the National Health Service (NHS) over the last few years. The UK historically stems from a lower digital maturity level compared to its counterparts across Europe when it comes to public facing services, and previously the Conservative Government under David Cameron were looking at ways in which the UK can overall take a favourable position.

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the UK announced on June 29, 2022, in further digitalizing the National Health Service and Adult Social Care, is a good step. However, success will not only depend on how future services make use of new technology, but how they ultimately improve and meet patient needs.

Is the government starting on the backfoot with digital for health?

Starting from this position, Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, should in some ways be commended for the government’s efforts in driving digitalization across the NHS and Adult Social Care. However, it’s anybody’s guess if this was a planned ambition or one that the government is piggybacking from the Covid-19 outbreak, where developed healthcare countries experienced a rise in demand for digital health solutions and channels, both in terms of tackling Covid-19 and in the continuation of serving the public.

Government’s four point strategy looks good on paper

Sajid Javid’s recent announcement in June highlights a series of strategic initiatives in driving digital across the NHS and Adult Social Care. Firstly, it aims to build on the already 28 million members of the public that are on the NHS App, 40 million that have access to NHS online services, and the currently rolled out electronic patient record systems across some trusts. There have also been further investment announcements including the £150 million in digital adoption that will complement the current set up in digital within the UK’s healthcare System. The government’s strategic vision with all of this, and in particular the NHS App, is that it will be pivotal in driving digitalization within healthcare that will fundamentally be more effective for the public in delivering more personalized care as well as provide better patient accessibility.

Reviewing this in detail, the newly announced plan includes a number of strategic announcements including; providing better digitally enabled information management by March 2025. This consists of rolling out electronic patient records across all NHS trusts, with the goal of having patient information available across settings; and in enabling imaging sharing utilizing technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). It also makes use of the £2 billion investment for health that the government had made available. Other areas include better connectivity and accessibility through improved digital channels around new support services, and self-help, diagnostics and therapy support. There will also be the introduction of new technologies, through partnerships, and better alignment of digital transformation by laying down standards and regulation through NHSE England and the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Digital plan should serve patient needs as a starting point

The UK’s NHS is the largest employer across the UK. Therefore, the government succeeding with its digital transformation strategy is one tall order, but it is achievable if executed right. However, history shows the government has a poor track record.

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Notably, the NHS ‘test-and-trace’ system that was previously launched failed on many accounts. Some of the issues included the lack of planning from top down addressing what it was trying to achieve, and for not taking into consideration all the risks with planned contingencies that would have to be factored in to make it a success. Additionally, the government took an over centralized approach with ‘track-and-trace’ through the use of private companies, as opposed to a more a local approach. But from this, the most relevant from a digital transformation technical perspective is the IT development issues that occurred with ‘track and trace’, with lack of planning and execution.

With this in mind there is still an excellent opportunity for the UK Government to really succeed with its digital initiative for the NHS and Adult Social Care, and pave way for the UK to be at the forefront of digital innovative within healthcare. However, the starting point with all of this should be in meeting the needs of the patient and delivering services that not only provides more accessibility to patients through digital channels, but that also resolves many of the bottlenecks around accessing the right treatments in a timely manner.

Fundamental to the success of the digital transformation initiative will be improving the digital skills hurdle for both patients and workers, accessibility, connectivity, simplification of processes, and having greater availability of various diagnostic services and skilled healthcare workers supporting these services.