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NHS Digital in Flux: Assessing the True Magnitude of Change

A lot is happening in and around the NHS, with grand ambitions of becoming a technologically advanced healthcare provider. The promise of a first-class data-driven NHS is undoubtedly commendable, but recent developments reveal that there are significant hurdles along the way. Here, we will delve into the nuances of these issues and explore some of the challenges facing the NHS as it transforms into a digital health powerhouse.

Bridging the Gap in Workforce and Technology

One of the most important aspects the NHS needs to address is its recent workforce plan. While some of the intentions it sets out are necessary, if the government is aiming for a data-savvy NHS, the workforce plan lacks a coherent strategy and funding to support the technology and data workforce. The need for clinical informatics, data staff and analysts are undeniable, but the plan is silent on how they will be trained and supported. It also overlooks the retention of skilled staff, which can lead to a loss of continuity and expertise. Without a well-funded and comprehensive approach to the workforce, the NHS may struggle to realise its digital health ambitions.

Another pressing issue facing the NHS is staff burnout. With staff shortages and additional digital responsibilities, healthcare workers are under increasing strain. Inadequate remuneration exacerbates the problem, leading to disillusionment and potential turnover. Tackling burnout is vital not only for the wellbeing of NHS staff, but also for maintaining a sustainable healthcare system that can cope with future challenges. Denying this aspect is akin to denying climate change.

Navigating the Risk of our Growing Reliance on Technology. 

In addition, the digital maturity of the vast majority of NHS hospitals remains low, making cybersecurity a pressing concern. Newly published research highlights that very few NHS trusts have reached top levels of international HIMSS digital maturity benchmark.

Recent cyber-attacks on the NHS have exposed significant vulnerabilities in its cyber security measures. The NHS’s huge landscape and lack of digital maturity increases the likelihood of being a target for cybercriminals, and requires a specialised and robust approach to security.

Unfortunately, the current workforce lacks the expertise to protect against sophisticated attacks, making the need for upskilling and specialist training even more critical. No one can confidently predict a point at which the NHS will be fully cyber secure. But as the NHS implements more technology, it will inevitably open up more opportunities for cyber criminals.

Leveraging Technology Effectively. 

As we know, the success of any digital health tool hinges on its ability to attract and retain users. As part of its digital health vision, the NHS app had the potential to be a game changer.  However, the NHS app has fallen short of expectations due to a misaligned vision and lack of tailored functionality. Limited user adoption and insufficient investment in its development have hindered its potential to become a valuable tool for healthcare consumers.

With the target set at 75% of adult users by March 2024, it allows us to reflect on the government’s relationship with targets as a whole.  It’s not just about the target; the challenge is to discuss how to achieve it. It’s easy to set a target and say this is where we’ll be by then, it’s much harder to specify how we’ll get there. The experience of the NHS app teaches us the value of tailoring digital health solutions, setting clear goals and mapping out the path to reach them while using the reality of the situation to guide expectations.

A Way Forward.

From workforce to cybersecurity, issues like these show that good intentions don’t always deliver results. In this digital age, it’s normal to assume that our healthcare systems will keep pace with technological advances and innovation. However, without sufficient funding and insight into how to lead the workforce forward, any new systems implemented into an organisation could pave the way for more misery than improved outcomes or any desired benefits.

To effectively drive digital health transformation, leadership is essential. Amidst the churn and change in targets and funding allocations, and the potential for major changes in government to come, concrete examples need to be set. The new appointment of a tech-focused Chief Information Officer (CIO) can bring innovation, but a balance of technical expertise and strategic leadership is essential to guide the NHS through the complexities of this transformation.

Only with a comprehensive, well-rounded and decisive approach can the NHS harness the power of technology and data to deliver efficient, patient-centred care in the digital age. It is vital that the NHS moves beyond promises and takes concrete action to ensure that real change happens, benefiting both its workforce and the millions of patients who rely on it for their healthcare needs. The time for transformation is now, and with the right strategies in place, the NHS can truly become a beacon of innovation and excellence in digital health.

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