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Theresa May gives NHS £20bn birthday gift and says tech is key

The prime minister promises to increase NHS funding by an extra £20bn a year by 2023, and highlights importance of tech in improving care and enabling earlier diagnosis

The government will increase NHS funding by £20bn a year by 2023, aiming to build a health service around “the needs of the patient”.

The funding, seen as a birthday present to the NHS, which turns 70 this year, will be used to tackle the increased pressures faced by the NHS with a focus on long-term strategy. Prime minister Theresa May said that historically, increases in funding have been “inconsistent and short-term,” which has led to uncertainty.

“This has led to a system of planning from one year to the next, preventing much needed investments in technology, buildings and workforce,” she said, adding that the government will work with the NHS to develop a 10-year plan for the health service.

The current £114bn funding will gradually increase over the next five years, with an average of 3.4% growth per year. According to the government, the funding will be front-loaded with increases of 3.6% in the first two years, which in real terms means £4bn extra in 2019.

The money will come in part from an increase on taxes, due to be announced by chancellor Philip Hammond “shortly”, but will also be covered by what the government refers to as the “Brexit dividend” – in other words, money the UK will save by leaving the EU.

May added that it’s important to have a plan in place to ensure the money is well spent: “It must be a plan that tackles wastes, reduces bureaucracy, and eliminates unacceptable variation, with all these efficiency savings reinvested back into patient care,” she said.

“It must be a plan that makes better use of capital investment to modernise its buildings and invest in technology to drive productivity improvements.”

Personalised medicine

Technology, she said, is one of the key building blocks in transforming the NHS, enabling safer, more accurate and faster care, and earlier diagnosis.

The government sees data as key to improving early diagnosis, where clinicians can cross-reference genetics, personal habits and medical records with nationally held data to spot early stages of cancer, and being able to refer patients to oncology “even ahead of clear symptoms developing”. 

The government also plans to set up a number of genomic centres, or “hubs” across the UK, aiming to develop personalised medicine, being able to target treatment for the individual patient 

“We have the opportunity to lead the world in the use of data and technology to prevent illness, not just treat it; to diagnose conditions before symptoms occur, and to deliver personalised treatment informed not just by general understanding of disease but by your own data including your genetic make-up,” said May.

She added that when at its best, the NHS is “world-class”, but has struggled to spread best practice. This, she said, was because those “who were innovating felt they were going against the grain”.

“They described the competing incentives that lead to negotiations between different organisations at every step, and business cases and templates that seem to put process ahead of patients,” said May.

Read more about the NHS and technology

She called for a systematic implementation of digital innovations in order to ensure technology actually helps transform, and ease pressures on the NHS.  

“Put simply, our long-term plan for the NHS needs to view technology as more than supporting what the NHS is doing already. It must expand the boundaries of what the NHS can do in the future, in the fastest, safest and most ambitious way possible,” she said.

“But I want our long-term plan for the NHS to help every individual at a more personal level. For we can increasingly use world-leading expertise in genomics to understand the risks to our own individual health. And we can draw on cutting-edge technology to monitor a condition and identify the actions we can take to remain healthy.”

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