Digital transformation will be put at the heart of the NHS in England as part of new reforms announced by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, this week.
The plans will also target recruitment, training, and retention of NHS staff and sit alongside the strategic NHS workforce framework ministers previously commissioned to report in the spring.
Javid is also setting out his intention to merge the body responsible for the education and training of the health workforce, Health Education England, with NHSE/I, putting long-term planning and strategy for healthcare staff recruitment and retention at the forefront of the national NHS agenda.
And he has accepted the recommendations of Laura Wade-Gery, non-executive director at NHS England and chairman of NHS Digital, including to merge NHSX and NHS Digital into NHSE/I.
Digital and workforce are central to transforming the NHS to tackle the backlog and recover services after the COVID pandemic
The recommendations build on the huge progress made on digital transformation during the pandemic, following a commission by the Secretary of State in summer 2020, and will improve co-operation between the key digital bodies of the NHS by bringing them under one roof for the first time.
By merging these three organisations with NHSE/I, the Government and the NHS are ensuring the health and care sector is fully equipped to face the future and deliver for patients, said Javid.
And the changes will better support the recovery of NHS services, address waiting list backlogs, and support hard-working staff, all while driving forwards an ambitious agenda of digital transformation and progress.
Javid said: “To ensure our record NHS investment makes a lasting impact, I am bringing workforce planning and digital transformation into the heart of the NHS.
“These reforms will support our recovery from COVID-19 and help us tackle waiting lists to give patients excellent care in years to come.
“I would like to pay tribute to all our colleagues at Health Education England, NHS Digital, and NHSX for the enormous progress they have made, which we will continue to drive forward with their help.”
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, added: “NHS organisations have worked more closely than ever to respond to the COVID pandemic and these changes build on that success.
“Digital and workforce are central to transforming the NHS to tackle the backlog and recover services after the COVID pandemic, as well, of course, as delivering on our Long Term Plan commitments to maintain momentum of the lifesaving NHS COVID vaccination programme, all while looking after thousands of patients in hospital with the virus.
We will build on the progress made as one organisation, accelerating the digitally-enabled transformation of the NHS and improving it, both for its staff and the people it serves at the time they are most in need
“By coming together in this way, the whole health service can continue progress in delivering these goals.”
And chief executive of NHSX, Matthew Gould, said: “For the past two years, NHSX has been making the case for digital transformation in the NHS, and for digital to be integrated within the NHS, rather than kept in its own silo.
“This reorganisation is the culmination of that campaign.
“It is an excellent step - a more-coherent structure that will allow us to accelerate digital transformation across health and care.
“It comes after two years in which NHSX, NHS Digital, and the NHS and social care frontline have together made extraordinary progress - from allowing the NHS to move to remote working and consultations in the heat of the pandemic, to introducing virtual wards and remote monitoring of patients at home, to building the tech to underpin the vaccine rollout and the NHS COVID Pass.”
Wade-Gery said the merger would equip the national centre with the right capability to support Integrated Care Systems to deliver better health services.
She added: “We need to have the culture, operating model, skills, capabilities, and processes to put data, digital, and technology at the heart of how we transform health services.”
And interim chief executive of NHS Digital, Simon Bolton, said: “The use of technology and data across health and care has been vital in managing the pandemic, and essential to supporting the frontline and ensuring care can continue to be delivered.
“From the vaccine rollout, to identifying and protecting the most vulnerable to Coronavirus, I am extremely proud of everything we have achieved during this challenging period, in close collaboration with our partners, which has made a real and valuable impact for the public.
“Now we will build on this progress as one organisation, accelerating the digitally-enabled transformation of the NHS and improving it, both for its staff and the people it serves at the time they are most in need.”
For any organisation like the NHS undergoing a digital transformation, a low-code approach enables an empowered community to use their innate creativity and problem-solving to create great customer service, automate back-office tasks, improve internal operations, and execute ideas
The NHS and social care sectors have made significant digital and technological advancements over the last few years.
Working at pace, both NHSX and NHS Digital have delivered innovative solutions to new challenges, such as monitoring patients at home in virtual wards and the rollout of NHS COVID Pass.
There are now nearly 20 million users registered to the NHS App, which offers a wide range of individual health benefits and allows users to have their GP records at their fingertips.
In addition to these reforms, DHSC will also establish a Digital Delivery Unit to sit within the existing NHS Delivery Unit.
This single, central unit, with data at its core, will help the Government to better understand the blockers to recovering NHS services following the pandemic and how they can be overcome.
Speaking to BBH following the announcement, Peter Wilson, industry chief technology officer at Pegasystems, said: “It’s encouraging to see this consolidation, which will undoubtedly foster a wider and more-connected view of digital innovation by bringing subject experts, strategists, and technologists more closely together and creating an environment in which other perspectives and trends can be adopted into new digital design.
“Going further, this could be an opportunity to turbo-charge this kind of design approach around low-code/co-design development platforms, which can provide the impetus for a wider, more-collaborative view of innovation.
“For any organisation like the NHS undergoing a digital transformation, a low-code approach to development enables an empowered community to use their innate creativity and problem-solving to create great customer service, automate back-office tasks, improve internal operations, and execute ideas by quickly moving them from inception to prototyping.
“It also solves real problems that may not otherwise get the attention they deserve by enabling the people like administrators and clinicians closest to them to create solutions”
And Tim Skinner, public sector director at NetApp, adds: “The announcement that NHSX and NHS Digital are set to merge with NHS England is to be welcomed.
The merger is a step change for the NHS, and by removing the silos that previously existed and putting digital at the heart of the NHS, it should deliver better outcomes for the organisation and for patients.
“The merger will create a single body, helping the NHS to have a single vision and single operational organisation to drive digitisation.
“The pandemic showed the benefits of the NHS working as a cohesive unit through increased agility and NHSX helped drive digital transformation within the NHS using technologies such as AI and this merger will only further enhance that.
“Also, with the NHS facing continued pressure, the integration of a number of large separate patient record systems will ensure patients are more in control of their treatments and the process is more streamlined.”