The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, has said that everyone in the NHS is passionate about the power of technology to make life better for patients and staff in healthcare and that better technology should be a strategic priority for the NHS.
He has set out the future for technology in the NHS and why, for any NHS organisation wanting to be the best it possibly can be, that rejecting the best possible technology is a mistake.
Hancock stated that tech-sceptics generally fall into 2 categories.
First, the St Augustines. The people who say ‘Lord, let’s fix the tech in the NHS, but just not yet’.
According to this group there are always more pressing priorities. More hospitals to build. More staff to recruit. According to them, tech is a luxury item, a midlife-crisis Ferrari that we don’t need and can’t afford.
Hancock sent a clear message, “Those who say better tech is not a priority for the NHS, those who think we should only invest in our short-term operational needs, never in long-term progress, those who want us to spend every last penny of the extra £33.9 billion a year on more people and more buildings”.
“I say that is wrong. Now of course more people and more buildings are important and we’re doing both. But we know this argument is wrong and we’ve heard it before. We heard it in the 70s when some people said that researching IVF was a waste of public money because of overpopulation. We heard it in 1948 when, with a country in ruins, and years of rationing still ahead, some people said setting up the NHS wasn’t a priority. So when people say that better technology is a ‘nice to have’ that costs too much, I say wrong again. Better technology is vital to have and embracing it is the only way to make the NHS sustainable over the long term. If you’re not convinced, then visit any hospital that lacks an electronic patient record system. An EPR records, in digital form, who all your patients are, what’s wrong with them and how they’re being treated. Not having one is like being John Lewis and doing your accounts on paper. Yet astonishingly, that’s how some parts of the NHS are still trying to function. Come with me to one of these trusts and tally up the sheer amount of time staff spend chasing paper records, copying the same bit of information from one system to another, running round the ward trying to figure out whose patient hit the alert button, waiting for the lift just so they can go down and call a patient up to the consulting room.
I’ve seen it myself. I was on a night shift a few months ago when an alarm went off because a patient was going into arrest. About 20 people, including the most senior doctors in the hospital, rushed into the room. Then they had to wait for 3 minutes until someone had found the patient’s records and wheeled in a trolley with all the files. Then a consultant had to stand on a chair in the corner of the room, reading out the patient record and struggling with the handwriting. Now the good news is that thanks to the brilliant work of the staff, that patient survived. But the risk was enormous.
This is no way to run a health service in the 21st century and it is unforgivable because it doesn’t have to be this way. And it’s not just the burden on clinicians.
If you work in the NHS, in any part of the service, far too often old, out-of-date 20th century technology gets in the way of your ability to do your job.
Technologies have potential to save millions in the cost of coding and analysing data. There’s huge medical research potential in getting this right too. It’s a clear example of the latest AI helping us fix the basics, because once you’ve coded up and digitised your patient records, you can start to solve fundamental problems, like how to share those records across different parts of the NHS.
You’re also freeing up staff time and capacity to do more of what people came into healthcare to do: looking after others and solving problems.
To stay true to its founding ideals our NHS must embrace the future. Now I want to talk about what that means in practical policy terms. In terms of structures, scalability and leadership.
One of the lessons I’ve learnt over the last 18 months as Secretary of State is that leadership is at the heart of getting this right. Yes, that means our tech leadership – the CCIOs and CIOs and their teams. I want to see a digital and tech leader on every board, there’s no excuse. We need to turn that community of gifted enthusiasts into a recognised and respected profession – feeling part of a wider movement, knowing that around you, there are others who share your passion to improve things.
It means a change in culture so the doctor who leads her trust’s adoption of technology gets as much kudos as the doctor who leads her medical department, and when I talk about leadership, I don’t just mean people with the word ‘information’ on their name badge. Every CEO needs to be comfortable and competent in leading digital transformation, every board needs to know what questions to ask, how to hold their CEO to account, every medical director and chief nurse needs to know how technology is going to transform what their teams do and lead that adoption.
We need to give our people, our leaders and future leaders, our clinicians and our non-clinicians, the tools, confidence and understanding they need. Because in the end, this whole agenda is not about the technology, it’s about people. It’s why the best kind of tech is the technology you barely notice because it just works. It’s the tech that gets you away from the screen and lets you make eye contact with other people, with the patient in front of you. It’s the kind of tech that helps humanise a difficult and demanding environment, by freeing you up to do more of the work you love.
Giving clinicians back the gift of time and allowing them to care. That’s what we’re aiming for, it’s what clinicians are crying out for, it’s what patients expect and it’s what will bring the NHS into the 21st century, and together, we’re going to make it happen.