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Digital Health Summer Schools 2023 – a healthy dose of realism and optimism

Digital Health celebrated its 10th Summer School at the University of Birmingham last week, bringing together CIOs, CCIOs, CNIOS, and health tech leaders from across England and Wales to share lessons learned, on-going challenges and best practice in health tech.   

The agenda included keynotes from Dr Vin Diwaker, Medical Director for Transformation, NHSE (and soon-to-be National Director of Transformation when Tim Ferris steps down in September); John Quinn, National CIO; and Richard Murray, CEO, The King’s Fund. Plus, there were masterclass sessions that spanned everything from shared care records (shameless plug as I chaired this one!), converging EPRs, the difference between CIOs at Trust level vs ICB level, and the tangible impact of AI. 

Set against a backdrop of nostalgia for how far the Summer Schools have come since the early days – which is to be applauded given the sheer number of delegates in the lecture hall from different roles and backgrounds – there were some common themes that included a lot of optimism, but also a heavy dose of realism. 

Here’s my take on it: 

  • John Quinn set out his key priorities and, reassuringly, they are practical and tangible – it’s all about getting the basics right. It includes improving relations between the centre and frontline and making the case for more programme funding. A positive synergy with Dr Melanie Iles, Interim National CCIO who said a Digital, Data and Technology Workforce Plan is forthcoming and will have dedicated funding. Watch this space!         
  • Making ICSs work on the ground is hard, really hard. Whilst I’m sure we’ve all read articles about the challenges, it was surprising to hear how, a year on from being put on statutory footing, digital leaders are still wrangling with the basic politics of bringing together different stakeholders to ensure the digital strategy is greater than the sum of its parts.  
  • When it comes to EPR convergence, there’s a gulf between national rhetoric and local deliverables in some regions. I was surprised to hear how Trusts in the local area had tried to converge their EPR plans, but the difference in readiness (which equated to a 12-month difference in their digital programmes) meant they had to make independent procurement decisions. 
  • Clinical buy-in is still a ‘make or break’ factor when it comes to EPR implementation – leaders from across the Midlands shared their experiences of change management programmes and training, and the sheer difficulty of getting clinicians to engage from the outset and throughout. It really shined a light on the importance of the CCIO role and how some basic changes, like dropping the term ‘digital’, can make a big difference. That, and, ‘you just can’t do enough training when it comes to EPRs’, said one of the CIOs.   
  • Only 20% of providers are considered digitally mature, 30% with an EPR don’t have a single use case for the benefits achieved, and 10% are still reliant on paper. The numbers are stark. The Frontline Digitisation Programme will (hopefully) address this – Vin Diwaker said every Trust was on track to have an EPR by March 2026, the new, extended target. But clearly, much more needs to be done to share best practice (cue supplier case studies) and/or equip Trusts with the tools to identify, capture and analyse the impact data.     
  • The revolving door of people moving from the public sector to private sector was a concern amongst delegates given the immediate and long-term impact of the brain drain. Answers on a postcard as the issue was side-stepped by the keynotes from NHSE.  
  • Public confidence is worse than we/I thought – Richard Murray shared data that showed howdissatisfaction with the NHS is at its highest and that it’s not because expectations are higher. It’s simply because the public feel that they’re not receiving basic levels of service, for example over 50,000 patients experienced 12+ trolley waits in 2022/23. The silver lining is that it creates (another) burning platform for NHS boards and senior leaders (and politicians given that the General Election is fast approaching) to consider digital and data as ‘a significant part of the cavalry’, as Richard put it. There is clearly a window of opportunity for suppliers to align with the public satisfaction narrative when demonstrating the value of tech. 

Overall, I was really impressed by the honesty and pragmatism of the discussions over the two days. Whilst there are clearly some on-going, complex challenges in digitising the NHS, especially against a backdrop of the widely recognised issues facing the NHS, it felt like we were all in it together (even though I was an interloper). And that delegates were there to share examples of what had and hadn’t worked and to find tangible solutions.  

The heavy dose of realism was important, as it enabled the conversations to push beyond the superficial – which can often be the downfall of bigger events and conferences – and find ways to attain success collectively (and retain the much-needed optimism that we all need to keep going).      


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