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CIO interview: Darren Curry, CDO, NHS Business Services Authority

NHS Business Services Authority chief digital officer Darren Curry talks about using technology to change people’s lives, developing accessible services and transforming the health service

Darren Curry, chief digital officer (CDO) at the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), is helping to transform service provision at the organisation. It’s a role that involves a range of innovative developments and applications.   

Curry hopes his transformative work helps to alter some of the negative perceptions of healthcare IT in the UK, particularly after the ill-fated National Programme for IT (NPfIT). 

Although this multibillion-pound programme left a disappointing legacy, Curry believes the digital work being undertaken by organisations such as the NHSBSA helps point the way forward. 

“Modern technology development in healthcare is all about small, iterative changes and testing your hypothesis as you go,” he says. “It’s about working with users, understanding what they need, trying things out and not being afraid to fail, but doing those trials safely and then moving on and iterating again.”

Curry originally worked for the NHSBSA while he was completing his degree in engineering. He ended up staying on and eventually moved into a management role. He left NHSBSA for six months during 2008 and worked as practice manager at Consett Medical Centre. 

Curry then returned to the NHSBSA and fulfilled a range of programme management positions, including leading digital transformation from January 2015. That role involved taking the organisation’s services and making them more accessible in line with the Government Digital Service (GDS) guidelines. 

“By making services more accessible, we can see the real impact digital has on people’s lives”

Darren Curry, NHSBSA

He moved into the newly created CDO role last September, and says the opportunity to use digital to change people’s lives has become a real passion – and positive developments are already under way. “It’s going well,” says Curry, reflecting on his time in charge. 

“Having spent a lot of time with the NHSBSA, I have developed an affinity with the organisation. Some of the services that we deliver have a genuine impact on people’s lives. That’s what drives me to make a difference and to make those services as accessible as possible.” 

Creating great capability

The transformation journey started in 2015, when the NHSBSA started to think about how it would digitise the paper-based records of the maternity exemption service it manages. A maternity exemption certificate entitles pregnant women to free prescriptions and free NHS dental treatment. 

The certificate is valid for 12 months after a baby’s due date or date of birth. It is usually issued in paper form, but Curry and his team were keen to create a digital version of the certificate. Patients can show the email on a mobile device or print a copy to prove their entitlement. 

The maternity exemption pilot has been a success. The programme has also helped Curry shape future digital transformation initiatives. He says the NHSBSA didn’t have access to many of the resources, such as user-interface experts and top-level developers, that private enterprises use when undertaking this type of change programme. 

“It was really important that we developed that capability, so we created those roles,” he says. “We started off with a team of about five people, who went through service discovery, research and redesign. The service went live and we learnt a lot through that process.

“We had some bumps. We took the organisations on a journey, so it wasn’t just about the service – we needed to focus on the underlying infrastructure, too.” 

Developing accessible services 

When it comes to infrastructure, Curry says the NHSBSA was keen to move towards a cloud-first strategy for hosting. Alongside this shift to on-demand IT, he also had to ensure that commensurate security technologies and policies were established.   

“It was about ensuring all the business processes around the digital transformation were delivered as we changed the service,” he says. “We were transforming internally, and changing the external-facing service.”

Curry says the agile digital development team at the NHSBSA now includes 110 people who are multidisciplinary, cross-functional employees who work on multiple services simultaneously. All services are redesigned with accessibility at the front and centre of development. 

“That’s the driver for our work,” he says. “We carry out user research and look for people who find it hard to get the help they require. By making services more accessible, we can see the real impact digital has on people’s lives.”

Exploiting new technologies 

Service developments extend to primary healthcare organisations, says Curry. The NHSBSA recently launched an online submission service to help pharmacists deal with paper-based claims. The aim is to create a service that allows pharmacists to view their submissions online and enable them to run queries on the information that has been submitted.    

Curry says his organisation is also looking to drive a transformation across the NHS Jobs service. Responsibility for NHS Jobs was transferred to the NHSBSA in April 2018, and the organisation already runs the NHS Pension Scheme. Curry says work on NHS Jobs – a dedicated online recruitment service for the health service – is crucial. 

“The NHS workforce is quite simply what makes the health service work,” he says. “Getting the right people in the right roles will help us to create a sustainable NHS. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to apply for positions.”  

Curry says the creation of his CDO role in September 2017 was part of a broader recognition across the organisation that digital represents the future of service delivery. “The ongoing iteration of those services, while using new technologies to create improvements, is key to this role,” he says. 

“As new technologies, such as AI [artificial intelligence], become available, my role as CDO is to look at those, to scan the horizon and think about how they can support users, making our services as accessible as possible.” 

Innovating in healthcare 

Much of the NHSBSA’s pioneering work is related to specialist experience. The organisation has spent the past 12 years scanning and processing the nation’s paper prescriptions. In 2017, the NHSBSA processed 500 million prescriptions. It is now using this experience to begin a process of digitisation that will help break the health service’s dependence on paper. 

“The NHS relies on a huge amount of paper,” says Curry. “Digitising those records would have been a huge undertaking five years ago. Now, cloud allows us to do that much more easily and to provide document access securely based on open standards. The technology is providing the opportunity to create new ways of working in the NHS.” 

Read more NHS CIO interviews

The NHSBSA is using specially created software from CCube Solutions. It plans to reconfigure its existing IBML ImageTrac5 scanners from processing prescriptions, so that these systems – which currently scan about 20,000 prescriptions an hour – can handle other documents. This work is being managed in tandem with Alaris, IBML’s UK service partner.

Other pioneering developments are afoot. Curry is keen to investigate and take advantage of AI. The NHSBSA is currently using the technology in its customer contact centre, deploying Amazon Alexa to help call centre operators manage non-essential calls relating to the European Health Insurance Card.  

The NHSBSA receives 4.7 million contacts from customers every year in its 600-seat contact centre in Newcastle. Curry says the priority is to ensure non-complex calls are dealt with automatically through AI.

The technology has already helped to support a 45% reduction in the amount of calls passed to operators, he says. “As that technology continues to develop, I think we’ll be able to hone our approach.”

Building strong relationships

Curry says this ongoing improvement process presents a challenge, but he relishes the opportunity. He says the NHSBSA has built strong links with academic institutions in the northeast to help deliver transformative services, and has used these link-ups to take interns into the IT department. 

The initiative helps young people embrace digital and see the benefits of using agile development first-hand. These internships form part of a new focus on skills development that Curry says is one of his key achievements since becoming CDO. “We’ve not only transformed our services, we’ve also changed our ways of working,” he points out. 

Curry says too many organisations still rely on external contractors to help deliver digital transformation. While that approach has its place, he believes public sector bodies must think about how to create internal capability. The NHSBSA has used contractors tactically to help accelerate change, while also developing in-house digital professionals to drive continual service improvement. 

“We’ve built our own internal capability and reduced our dependence on the third-party market,” he says. “We want to be able to draw on our own skills base to build and continually improve our services. We’ve brought people within the organisation on the development journey with us, creating new roles and building a skills legacy for the future of the NHSBSA.”

Going forward with confidence 

Curry says he is encouraged by wider recognition of the potential benefits of using digital technology to transform the NHS. He points, for example, to the public declarations by health secretary Matt Hancock about the positive impact technology can have on the delivery of healthcare. 

“The opportunity is there to embrace technology across the NHS – there is a call to arms,” he says. “The challenge is around making sure everyone steps us. We need to move the NHS forward and use new technologies to help improve the health service.” 

The good news for Curry is that the NHSBSA executive board recognises the potential game-changing power of digital technology. He believes his organisation is ready to embrace emerging technology – and that users will benefit from a raft of positive developments over the next year or two. 

“I hope we’ve created an organisation that is delivering fantastic, user-centred services on behalf of the NHS,” he says. “I want our users to be able to use technology to meet their needs in as seamless way as possible. And I’m sure we’ll get there.”

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