Man holding a phone with a health app

Department of Health lays out plans for NHS ‘tech revolution’

Image credit: Dreamstime

A Department of Health and Social Care document has laid out how technology may be integrated into the NHS, including the widespread adoption of health-tracking apps and wearables, although questions remain about how the project will be funded.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock – who, until recently, served as digital minister – has been vocal about the importance of further integrating digital technology into the NHS. His department has now released details of his plans for the “future of healthcare”.

The new document sets out the goal of a “tech revolution” in the NHS, in order to make the service the “most advanced” in the world, supported by a range of new digital services. Most notably, the document lays out plans to introduce open minimum technical standards for digital services to ensure that they can communicate securely and operate reliably. Any systems which fail to meet these standards will be phased out, although beyond these standards, local health bodies will be given the freedom to buy whatever digital services and products they need.

According to the plans, patients could benefit from using health-tracking wearable devices and diet apps in coordination with their GPs. Patients with chronic conditions should have access to supportive apps, it says, in order to support “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

“A tech revolution is coming to the NHS,” Hancock commented, in a statement. “These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.”

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators – inside and outside the NHS – and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world.”

However, according to the Health Service Journal, implementing Hancock’s plans to introduce new digital services to the NHS will require an investment of up to £13bn. This figure is similar to the funding required for the National Programme for IT, which proved the most expensive project to upgrade IT systems in the history of the NHS. The most costly parts of the project are likely to include continuing the NHS Spine – which supports the IT infrastructure for health and social care in England – and fully digitalising all NHS providers.

In a subsequent interview with Computer Weekly, Hancock was confronted with the £13bn estimate. He commented that he “didn’t recognise those figures”.

Although the new document does not lay out how the major upgrade will be funded, it states that the department is “committed to working with partners to make [it] happen”.

Recent efforts to digitalise some NHS services in partnership with private companies have attracted controversy. For instance, the Hancock-endorsed “GP at Hand” app – which allows users to book virtual GP appointments on an app – has been controversial, with plans to expand the scheme beyond London having been blocked on the grounds of clinical safety.

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