Speech: Driving digital in the NHS

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Statement to Parliament: New action to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Bolton

Its a pleasure to open todays session on digital transformation.

Youre right that Im a tech geek, although my personal tech days are behind me.

I can code in Cobalt, but these days that is only any use for bringing very old systems up to date.

The reason I want to speak today, and Im very grateful for this opportunity, is because I think we have learned so much in the last year about the advances of the use of technology in the NHS.

And weve seen the opportunities, so now is a really important moment to push on and drive the agenda forwards.

But theres another absolutely critical thing, which is that we must learn from the pandemic.

We must learn from the challenges. We must learn from the successes, like the vaccine roll-out.

And we have to put those things into practice because I think we have won a big argument.

Those of us who can see and believe in the power of technology to improve peoples lives and improve healthcare have long held that belief, but now its commonplace everyone can see it.

So when I talk about interoperability, now I get a very positive response.

And when I talk about trying to make the NHS into a digital platform at which everyone can work seamlessly, that gets a positive response not just from people who are themselves techies and personally interested in technology, but now everyone can see it is important.

That is at the core of why now is an important moment.

In many ways, every day of the last year has been a session of digital transformation because of this shared experience of fighting the virus, and the vital role technology has played in the response.

If you think about it, this isnt just about here.

Everywhere around the world, people have been forced to use every weapon at their disposal to stop themselves from being overwhelmed by this virus. And that has opened minds.

Thankfully one of the weapons we could call on, because of the work that had been done before the pandemic, was the force of digital technology.

This has been a difficult time for us all, but what we have found though is that the power of using the best available technology and developing new technology quickly has proved its worth.

Saving lives and keeping our health and care service standing at a time when it was under unbelievable strain like never before.

Lets think of some examples.

Perhaps the one that touches the public most of all is that GP surgeries could keep operating remotely, because of the huge strides that have been made in telemedicine and then were made in the pandemic.

Getting iPads into care homes to make sure people could stay in contact with their loved ones.

And we built on that digital infrastructure to make sure the testing and then vaccination programmes have been able to operate in a seamless way. And ultimately the data is at the heart of both of those programmes. Testing is merely the discovery of new data.

It is about the discovery of information about someones COVID status and the data about who has had a vaccine is critical, both to the roll-out and to the future, for instance, of international travel.

Opportunities ahead

Its during these moments of exceptional change that weve got to constantly look at what has worked, and what we take forward.

And how can we build on this as a moment for digital transformation that turns into a movement.

Our whole relationship with technology has been transformed. So far I have talked about that about people within the system and it is very very important that we bring people with us. But this is also true of the public.

People who might use an NHS service, say once a year, have been using the COVID-19 app as part of their daily lives.

And over 20 million people have downloaded the app nearly half of all adults and it gives you a pretty seamless experience.

Although in my case one that made sure I had to be at home for another 10 days. But it is important and people have fully engaged with it.

We need to build on this engagement, and this interest, from the general public now, so I would urge all those involved to be bold.

There are 5 areas that I see as mission critical now, and I want to go into today.

1) Digitise more of the NHS

First, we need to digitise more of the NHS that is not yet digitised.

The starring role that healthtech has played in our response was no accident.

It comes off the back of the relentless investment in the fundamentals.

And the absolute commitment of a group of people across the NHS in the vital work of things that may seem unglamorous.

Like improving connectivity so we could keep services running virtually, and making sure we have the infrastructure in place to support millions of consultations that otherwise couldnt have taken place.

Ive heard from a whole range of frontline colleagues who have welcomed the changes weve seen, and the focus theyve been able to give to patient care as a result.

In fact, a BMA survey during the first peak reported 88% of clinicians want to retain our use of technology.

And that 82% say we need to retain the reduced paperwork in the long term. And I say amen to both of those.

The critical task therefore is to make sure we do not let them down.

Im also aware that nearly half, even as we saw those big numbers welcome this digital transformation, nearly half of those who were surveyed said they were hampered by issues like internet speed and infrastructure.

We cant let the basics get in the way of the life-saving improvements that digital transformation can bring.

So we must go forward to get the infrastructure in place.

Last year NHSX launched the Digital Aspirant programme, tasked with boosting the procurement, deployment and uptake of technologies.

The first wave of the programme helped 27 trusts to boost their digital infrastructure and today Im delighted to announce that were launching our next wave.

Thirty more trusts will be starting their journey and becoming a Digital Aspirant.

Seven trusts will get up to 6 million over the next 3 years, and the rest will get seed funding to start creating their plans.

And of course well be offering further waves of funding in the years ahead.

To do this, well focus on all parts of the NHS.

Its very important this is across all parts of the NHS and indeed social care, including mental health and community trusts.

Which can feel the benefits of digital transformation just as much as acute trusts.

So well keep driving this work across the whole of the health and care sector to make sure everyone has the digital capability they need.

And lay down those strong foundations, thatll put us in a good place for the future.

That is the first thing. Making sure everybody can participate and getting the basics right.

2) Connecting the system

Next, we need to connect the system so data flows appropriately and freely, and we get the intrinsic benefits that high quality data and interoperability can provide.

Bringing together data, that once upon a time would have only existed in silos, was fundamental to the COVID response.

One of my lessons from the COVID response is that the pulling together of data that previously had been in silos is absolutely critical.

For instance, it helped us to identify those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus and ask them to shield, bringing together evidence from across government to understand who is most vulnerable and needed most support during the lockdowns.

It drove our NHS COVID-19 data store, which helped mean we had real-time data to allocate resources and co-ordinate our response.

It has powered vital, vital research. And if you think about it the opportunity for the UK here is massive.

Because we have one NHS, it meant we were the first country in the world to come up with clinically proven treatments both the first and second set of treatments developed because of the data available in the NHS.

Yet that data architecture for research could be strengthened so much further and there is a lot more to do.

We need to fill gaps in interoperability where they exist, especially the link to social care and responsibilities of the NHS.

And we must streamline data to simplify the user experience within the NHS.

It is no good just focusing on the research end and the exciting frontiers.

We have to make it easy for everyone within the NHS to use data to help improve the care that they give.

That means if youre a surgeon, a GP or a district nurse you need to be able to draw information from, or put information into, the same care record in a safe and straightforward way.

And for patients, that means people need to be able access the data that, after all, in principle, belongs to them. People need to be able to access their own care data. It is a principle on which we need to build.

To make this happen, were putting in place Shared Care Records.

This will mean patients only need to give their details once, and theyll be captured in a local record that can be safely seen by those who are caring for them.

And every local system will have at least a basic shared record solution in place by September this year.

So we can avoid things like repeated questions and duplicated tests that can cause so much frustration, and so we can put patients in control of their data.

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