A big dose of digital for the NHS

There’s been a lot of excitement over the new NHS Long Term Plan. The plan sets out how the NHS will spend the extra £20.5bn a year, gifted to the health service by prime minister Theresa May as a 70th birthday present last year, and with its clear focus on technology and digital, it’s obvious health secretary Matt Hancock has more than had his say.

Offered up as a solution most of the issues in the NHS, including staff shortages, budget problems, waiting lists and outdated technology, it really does sound like the Holy Grail. A digital first NHS where, as a patient, you can get a diagnosis, video chat with your GP, virtually attend your outpatient clinic, get your prescriptions, or have your entire genome sequenced, all at the touch of a button or swipe of your screen.

As a hospital clinician you’ll be able to use your handheld device to liaise with social workers, community nurses and other care staff, while getting a full view of everything you need to know about the patient. No waiting for records, no “hold the line while we transfer you” and no ridiculously long waiting lists, or 12 hour waits in A&E.

It sounds like a utopia, the NHS version of Shangri-La. Unfortunately; nothing is ever as simple as that. For one, the NHS does not have a great history of successful technology programmes, or indeed hitting its targets. The paperless NHS by 2018 target set by Jeremy Hunt in 2013, soon became 2020 and now, depending on who you ask, it’s 2024 or later. It’s not the technology though, that’s going to be the main issue in executing the 10 year plan. Without even touching on the money issue, as with most technology projects, the key stumbling block is culture.

Transforming staff culture within the NHS to use more technology (and trust in it) is one thing, and by no means an easy feat. But the bigger issue is transforming the entire society we live in, so that interacting with the NHS through a “digital first front door” becomes the norm. Most patients in England have had access to online GP services for a couple of years now, but the majority pf people haven’t even signed up to the services yet, let alone using them. And no, people shouldn’t show up to A&E with a runny nose, but the fact is that people still do, and it will take a lot more than technology to change that.

So will there be a “digital first” NHS emerging in the next few years? It’ll certainly be a huge challenge and requires buy-in from the entire country, but nothing is impossible. To those doing the hard work of implementing the plan: May the odds be ever in your favour.

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