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Hancock sets out NHS tech vision

Government will mandate national open standards for the NHS and tech suppliers, build a health and caretech ecosystem and give local NHS organisations more flexibility in how and what tech they buy

Health secretary Matt Hancock has set out his tech vision for the NHS, with a clear focus on open standards and interoperability.  

The vision includes several proposals on how the NHS will become the “most advanced health and care system in the world”, through modern technology architecture, a focus on user needs, privacy and security, interoperability and inclusion.  

It said that “getting the basics right” is key, with the gap between where “we are and where we want to be” only getting bigger.

“We need to take a radical new approach to technology across the system and stop the narrative that it’s too difficult to do it right in health and care,” the vision said.

This new approach includes improving infrastructure across the board, as the NHS is notorious for having un-interoperable systems that don’t talk to each other, disparate IT both within and across organisations and poor data quality.

Standards and flexibility

Hancock said in his vision that the government will set national open standards for data, interoperability, privacy and confidentiality, real-time data access, cyber security and access rules.  

“These standards will be mandated throughout the NHS,” the vision said, adding that the government promises to change the way the NHS buys broadband contracts, laptops, desktops, software licences and developer time “so we break the supplier capture”.

“All new IT systems purchased by the NHS will be required to meet the standards we set out and, in time, existing services will need to be upgraded to meet these standards,” it said.

Changing NHS procurement will be done through shorter contracts that avoid lock-in, the vision added.  

“Often contracts need to be broken into smaller constituent parts. This not only lets us continue to meet our user needs in better ways, it also encourages competition in industry, which can only result in better tools for us,” it said. 

Instead of national contracts, the government wants to “build in flexibility so that local organisations can buy technology and services to meet local needs”. 

“We will develop new frameworks, where required, to ensure a competitive marketplace and value for money,” it added.  

Commenting on the launch of his vision, health secretary Matt Hancock said the tech revolution “is coming to the NHS”.

These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations,” he said. 

Innovating and meeting user needs 

The vision also focuses on creating services across the health and care service that actually meet the needs of the users. 

The government envisions a future where a healthy person stays healthy and active using wearables and other apps, is able to coordinate with their GP, and where clinicians or social care workers have the digital tools and services needed to support them to do their jobs. 

“We need to build nationally only those few services that the market can’t provide and that must be done once for everyone, such as secure login and granular access to data,” the vision said, adding that this could mean that “some programmes need to be stopped”.

The government will also create a framework for researchers, innovators and tech companies to access guidance and develop products meeting user needs, as well as support uptake and adoption.

This is part of the NHS’s plan to create an ecosystem for healthtech and caretech through supporting finance access and encouraging collaboration between industry and the NHS.

“We want to make the rules and opportunities as clear and simple as possible to create a competitive marketplace for innovation where any tech company can compete and have an equal opportunity to deliver,” the vision said, adding that collaboration will be at the heart of innovation across health and care.

Earlier this month, NHS Digital and Great Ormond Street Hospital launched its Drive (digital, research, informatics and virtual environments) unit, which aims to harness existing technologies and embed them into hospital practice, firstly at Great Ormond Street and then throughout the NHS, to change the way healthcare services are delivered to patients. 

The government’s vision said it aims to increase “opportunities for real-world testing and iteration by creating safe spaces for innovators and clinicians to develop and test products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms”.

It will also launch a healthtech regulatory sandbox to “test, iterate and de-risk the most promising innovations  and the relevant regulation – so that when they are ready for uptake across the NHS, clinicians can use them with confidence. 

Hancock said that through his vision, the department wants to “to empower the country’s best innovators – inside and outside the NHS – and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world”.

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