Government ministers and NHS leaders should set out a definitive plan for expanding the use of digital technology in the health service, according to a new briefing published by The King’s Fund.
In the report the authors highlight the risk of losing credibility and commitment among frontline NHS staff if the digital health agenda continues to be subject to shifting priorities, new initiatives and slipping timescales. It calls for urgent clarification of when funding already announced will be made available, warning that holding back investment until later in the parliament will inevitably slow down progress.
The briefing assesses progress made against key commitments, such as implementing electronic patient records, increasing the number of accredited health apps, and rolling out online appointment booking and repeat prescription services. It concludes that digital technology has the potential to deliver significant benefits to patients and health professionals but that progress in implementing it remains patchy.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Hunt announced that more than £4bn had been set aside for digital and technology projects in the NHS over the course of this parliament. The briefing supports the conclusion of the recent national review led by Professor Robert Wachter that additional funding will be needed to achieve the government’s goals, as well as his call for a more realistic timetable for implementing the NHS digital agenda in acute hospitals, where most progress needs to be made.
The briefing emphasises the importance of engaging clinical staff in implementing the digital agenda if this is to succeed. It argues that focusing too heavily on cost savings and the language of a ‘paperless’ NHS risks distracting attention from the ultimate aim of improving outcomes and delivering benefits for patients.
Matthew Honeyman, policy researcher at The King’s Fund, said: “Digital technology has the potential to transform the way patients engage with services and support them in managing their health and wellbeing. In the incredibly challenging context in which the NHS finds itself, a clear plan is needed for taking the digital health agenda forward.
“Ministers and NHS leaders must articulate a clear and compelling vision which conveys the benefits of digitisation to the clinical staff who will be central to implementing it and provide certainty about the funds available to support it.”
A prime example
Commenting on the report, Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, said: “Asthma care is a prime example of how digital health technology could act as a game-changer that transforms people’s health and how they use the NHS. With greater support through technology people could manage their asthma more effectively day to day and rely less on stretched NHS resources. These changes are long overdue and decisive action needs to be taken by Government to speed up the introduction of new technologies across the NHS to improve care.
“For example, asthma action plans play a vital role in helping people to manage their asthma well, making it four times less likely that a person will end up in hospital due to an asthma attack, yet less than a third of people have one. Making these paper plans available in a digital format, instantly accessible via their smart phones or tablets, is a simple step that could better support people to manage their condition.
“Bearing in mind that 85% of asthma patients are being treated in primary care at GP surgeries, digital health technology can also play a huge part in easing the burden on the already overstretched NHS resource and budget. Asthma care costs the UK £1.1 billion each year. Using technology to help people better manage their asthma symptoms could reduce the number of routine GP appointments needed, freeing up time and better enabling GPs to focus their attention on the people with asthma who are at the greatest risk.”
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