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Energised and inspired, or disconnected from reality? A view of ConfedExpo 2023

Energised and inspired, or disconnected from reality? A view of ConfedExpo 2023 

While the latest round of industrial action from the BMA and junior doctors was taking place, health leaders and politicians gathered inside Manchester Central for the 2023 NHS ConfedExpo. Over the two-day conference we heard keynote speeches from NHSE’s CEO Amanda Pritchard, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay, and his Labour opposition, Wes Streeting, among others. 

While speakers and delegates were keen to keep the tone optimistic it was impossible to ignore the timing of the conference, including the rally organised by junior doctors on the steps of the venue just before Steve Barclay took to the stage. 

Silver Buck was in attendance for the two days, supporting our digital health clients who were speaking and exhibiting, meeting people in our network, and of course getting involved in the sessions.  

With tens of sessions over the two days, it is impossible to take part in them all – however we gave it a good go! One of the things instantly noticeable from this year’s agenda, was the significant focus on health inequalities – something we wholeheartedly support – and these were some of the most insightful sessions. Here are some of our takeaways from the two-day event: 

          1. A tough gig for Amanda 

Standing up on stage in front of a packed auditorium of privileged health leaders while on the frontline doctors feel their only choice is to stand down from their posts impacting thousands of patients, is not an enviable task. Pritchard was keen to stress that she was disappointed that she wasn’t able to stay at the conference after her speech – but the needs of business continuity and patient safety must come first, and rightly so. She reeled off a list of her senior colleagues that had to pull out of the conference due to the strikes, and Silver Buck’s sympathies go to the event organisers who I’m sure had some sleepless nights on the run up, and of course the striking doctors and nurses, and those working at such a challenging time. 

Pritchard’s speech was optimistic, reflective and defiant in tone, choosing to focus on successes as the NHS approaches its 75th birthday. On technology and innovation, she reinforced the need for a ‘deliberate approach that focuses on the solutions that deliver the biggest impact.’ By way of examples, she chose to focus on the EPR rollout with 9 out of 10 trusts now with access to an EPR, the need to have the right data architecture in place (to be delivered by the Federated Data Platform), and the expected benefits of AI. 

Pritchard went on to reference the need to make tech available quickly, while providing the best value for tax payers. We’ll revisit this in 12 months and see if this has happened. 

As you would expect, she could not ignore the topic of workforce in her speech, and while the audience awaited a big announcement, they were left somewhat disappointed by the only new scheme of note would be one to make it easier for newly retired doctors to continue working to help tackle the elective backlog. It’s expected to launch autumn 2023. We can’t help but feel that the juicier announcements had to be pulled – possibly because of the strikes, or the latest delays to the national workforce plan which now know should be published before the NHS 75th birthday on 5 July. 

          2. The SOS and the opposition – two sides of the tale 

The tech headlines of Steve Barclay’s speech on Thursday afternoon centred around the statement he made regarding ringfencing budgets. He said: “The reason I care about tech is simple: it improves outcomes and helps you do your jobs.  

“When budgets are tight, tech is often the first thing to go. That is not my approach. I am protecting the tech budget – and those key investments that will help us in the long term.” 

The key investments he referred to were again about the frontline digitisation programme for EPR rollouts, and the Federated Data Platform. However, as reported in HSJ, we’ve already seen the tech budget slashed by £1bn this year. 

Barclay also hit back at the Shadow Secretary of State, Wes Streeting, who earlier in the day had called for technology to be upgraded to prevent the NHS “being held back by creaking technology.” Streeting pointed to the fact that 80,000 pagers are still in use in the NHS despite a commitment by former SOS Matt Hancock that they’d be gone by 2021. He also referenced that momentum to axe fax machines had subsided, despite the great work by Silver Buck and others during the Axe the Fax campaign (okay, we added this bit in ). Earlier Streeting had criticised the development of the NHS App, to which Barclay replied: “Contrary to what you may have heard from one speaker yesterday, over 2.4 million repeat prescriptions were ordered in April alone, alongside a quarter of a million primary care appointments that were booked on the app, with numbers increasing rapidly.” 

          3. A focus on health inequalities 

Across the two days, there were many sessions dedicated to having uncomfortable conversations about health inequalities, and we were fortunate to join several of them. 

What we witnessed was some amazingly dedicated people committed to doing everything in their power to make care more accessible, safer, and equitable for underserved people. 

On day one, we heard about several excellent practical tools being used right now by trusts and systems to measure and take action on health inequality. Our personal favourite was the Stewardship model presented by Mid and South Essex ICB, which helps develop a culture of stewardship through shared thinking and shared responsibility. 

Later on day one, we joined a lively panel about making the business case for tackling health inequalities chaired by Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery. On the panel was Professor Bola Owolabi, Director – Healthcare Inequalities Improvement – NHS England, Owen Williams, Chief Executive Officer – Northern Care Alliance NHS Foundation Trust, and Rob Webster CBE, Chief Executive – NHS West Yorkshire Integrated Care Board. Possibly the most impactful soundbite we heard across the two days came from Bola, she said: “It is financially illiterate not to tackle health inequalities.” Powerful stuff indeed. Rob continued the hard-hitting tone with his comment: “If money is a barrier to reducing health inequalities in your system, then you need to ask ‘what you are spending your money on?’ and ‘who are you spending it on?” 

Final thoughts… 

The two days were very worthwhile, but it was tinged with disappointment against the backdrop of industrial action, with so many people unable to attend as rightly so, they were needed elsewhere. While footfall felt a little down on what was perhaps expected on day one, day two was certainly much quieter. The post-event sentiment on social media is largely one of people coming away energised and focused, however, it would be somewhat tone deaf to ignore the fact that the reality for many working in the NHS right now delivering care is very different.  

It’s important to have a platform for these conversations take place, and we’re pleased the conference went ahead, despite necessary late changes to the line-up. The conference was expertly curated, and we’re already looking forward to 2024, when hopefully all disputes have been settled and the sole focus can be on how we set the NHS up for the next 75 years. 

Photo credit: Ella Pickover