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No additional funding will be made available to deliver on the new technology plan for the NHS, according to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.
Reports earlier this week suggested that as much as £13bn would be needed to deliver the digital commitments of the NHS’s long-term plan, but in an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, Hancock said he “didn't recognise those figures”.
The health secretary launched his new “technology vision” yesterday (17 October), promising to create the “most advanced health and care system in the world” through modern technology architecture, open standards, and a focus on user needs, privacy and security, interoperability, and inclusion.
He highlighted the commitment made in his first speech in the job in July, to make £487m available for NHS technology projects and to replace paper-based systems. But Hancock was clear that the new plan is intended to set the rules for how NHS organisations will spend their existing IT budgets – and not to give them further cash.
“I’ve already announced half a billion pounds worth of funding in the three months I’ve been in the job, so there is funding there,” he told Computer Weekly.
“This is about how to spend it to make sure the whole system works better.”
Alongside his vision, NHS Digital has published a standards framework for the NHS, which all health and care organisations – as well as suppliers – will have to adopt.
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Hancock said that forcing adherence to open standards and interoperability will be the key to making the most of NHS investment in IT. “To get this right is more about standards than it is about money,” he said.
“We’ll be mandating standards and that mandation is the teeth to drive through the reform. Any money spent on technology is going to have to look to these standards. Ultimately, I see this as a cost saver once you get the standards in place, and it’s a cost driver only if you’re implementing technology that doesn’t help you run a more effective and productive health system.
“This is about the standards future technology will have to meet in order to be implemented in the NHS,” said Hancock. “Of course it takes budget to deliver on that, but those budgets exist. The critical part is that it will save money in the medium term, and it’s abiding by the standards that will allow a system to run better.”
Hancock acknowledged that NHS leaders – both in tech and outside – will be wary of a big, central IT strategy after the multibillion-pound failure of the NHS National Programme for IT, and controversies such as the aborted Care.data plan to share patient records.
But he said that since he took on the job as health secretary he found that “people are biting our hands off to have better technology”.
“Everybody who works in the NHS can see how technology is improving lives outside of the NHS,” he said.
“I understand that history, of course I do, and I understand why it has led to a reluctance from some people in leadership positions who duck the challenge. But over the time since the National Programme [started] 15 years ago, we’ve learned a huge amount as a society and within the public sector about how to deliver high-quality public sector digital services.”