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Top 10 NHS IT stories of 2017

In the year the NHS fell victim to its largest-ever cyber attack and NHS Digital got a new boss, the health service has taken significant digital steps forward, including Wi-Fi in doctors’ surgeries and launching a GP information-sharing system in Scotland

From the WannaCry cyber attack that caused chaos across the country, to England’s biggest trust hit by a week-long IT systems crash, and the revelation that the NHS accidentally “mislaid” patient documents, it has been a turbulent year for the NHS.

But it’s not all been doom and gloom. NHS Digital got a new boss – former Home Office chief digital and information officer Sarah Wilkinson – and NHS England updated its Five Year Forward View, filling it with exciting digital initiatives.

Trusts are beginning to look at the potential uses of artificial intelligence, and some are leading the way in virtual reality. Scotland launched its own GP information-sharing system, which went through much better than England’s disaster. All in all, it’s not been a bad year.

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 NHS IT stories of 2017. 

1. NHS hospitals hit by suspected ransomware attack

In May, the NHS was struck by chaos when the WannaCry ransomware attack hit about 50 trusts in England and 13 NHS organisations in Scotland. 

NHS Digital worked around the clock with stakeholders to get the situation under control, but the WannaCry attack, although not specifically targeted at the NHS, was a wake-up call for the health service and showed the need for both resilient infrastructure and proper cyber security education on a local level. 

In fact, an NAO report later in the year called on the NHS to “get its act together”, saying the organisation could have prevented the attack if it had followed basic IT security best practice. 

2. Royal Free and DeepMind data sharing not compliant with DPA ICO rules

Royal Free Hospital NSH Foundation Trust and Google-owned artificial intelligence firm DeepMind’s datas-sharing deal was controversial from the start. The arrangement gave DeepMind access to the identifiable healthcare records of 1.6 million patients in order to test its Streams application. It relied on implied consent, leading to concerns and complaints from the public.

Both Fiona Caldicott, national data guardian for health and care, and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) were unimpressed. In July, the ICO found that the deal failed to comply with the Data Protection Act and described the mechanisms to inform patients that their data would be used as “inadequate”. 

Both the trust and DeepMind accepted the ICO’s findings. 

3. Virtual reality as a healthcare tool

Virtual reality (VR) has begun to gain a foothold in healthcare. Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust is one of the trusts leading the way by using VR to treat persecutory delusions, while King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has created an app for children about to undergo their first MRI scan. When used with a headset, the app allows them to preview the whole experience through VR, from arriving at reception to the scan, noises included. 

It might be a while before this becomes a regular feature in the NHS, but as more and more trusts look at its potential, uptake is likely to grow.

4. NHS England updates its Five Year Forward View

In March, NHS England updated its five year strategy, revealing that a number of health trusts had been chosen to become digital centres of excellence, including Oxford Health NHS Trust (mentioned above).

It also set out plans for how the NHS would incorporate the recommendations of last year’s Wachter review of NHS technology, as well as promising NHS 111 online services and an updated apps library.  

5. NHS ‘mislays’ 500,000 confidential patient documents

In February, news came to light that the NHS had, over 15 years, accidentally mislaid 700,000 documents, including more than half a million confidential patient documents, by putting them into a warehouse rather than deliver them to their intended recipients.   

Some of the documents had the potential risk of harm to patients by not being delivered, which prompted further investigation. However, a review of all the documents has so far found no evidence of clinical harm to patients as a result of the data going astray. 

In October, a Public Accounts Committee hearing revealed that the number was even higher, with a further 162,000 documents being discovered, which must now go through the same review process. 

6. Sarah Wilkinson to head up NHS Digital 

Former Home Office boss Sarah Wilkinson left the department earlier in the year to take the lead at NHS Digital as its CEO.

Replacing former CEO Andy Williams, who left in March, Wilkinson is now in charge of delivering a paperless NHS, ensuring that programmes at both national and local level are focused on making effective use of technology, information and data.

7. NHS Scotland launches GP information-sharing system

In March, the Scottish NHS launched its own data-sharing system, allowing GPs to share anonymised patient information with researchers. Sounds familiar? That’s because it’s basically the Scottish version of NHS England’s programme, minus various issues that arose with that project. 

Unlike the plans for, which aimed to extract data that would be held in a central database, in Scotland, data will only be collected for specific purposes, and once it has been used, it will be destroyed.  

8. NHS must transform to reap the benefits of AI

At the AI summit in London, experts said the NHS could definitely benefit from the use of artificial intelligence (AI). However, the organisation is far from ready. Despite the drive to introduce electronic patient records, there is a lot of paper flying about the health service, and when systems are in place, they often don’t talk to each other – not the ideal environment to introduce AI.

This echoes evidence at a recent House of Lords AI committee, which found that the NHS data is simply not yet fit for AI. 

Before it starts banging the drum for AI, the NHS must fully integrate health and social care records, but when it does, AI has the potential to transform the health service.

9. Barts NHS Trust hit with ongoing week-long IT systems crash

In April, Barts Health NHS Trust faced a week of IT issues – not ideal when you are the largest NHS trust in the country. The main issues involved access to imaging and radiology systems, leading the trust to cancel operations and outpatient appointments that relied on images.

The problem also affected the trust’s chemotherapy prescribing system, pathology, and its digital dictation system. The week-long IT issues came just months after the trust was hit by a cyber attack, and right before the national WannaCry attack. It has not been an easy year for the trust. 

10. Patients will get access to NHS services via app by end of 2018

In September, health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised that patients will be getting access to medical records, ordering repeat prescriptions and booking GP appointments via an app by the end of 2018.  

The system is already being piloted by some GP surgeries, with some using their own apps to do so. Hunt says this will be “the best possible 70th birthday present from the NHS to its patients”.



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