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NHSX publishes first progress report since launch

Digital unit for the National Health Service outlines achievements in areas such as the NHS App and artificial intelligence and gives clues about future milestones

NHSX, the digital unit of the UK’s National Health Service, has reported progress in a number of areas in the six months since its inception in July 2019.

Following the launch of the new unit, which, according to chief executive Matthew Gould, was greeted with “a mixture of hope, scepticism, indifference and bemusement”, NHSX has maintained “a lower public profile”, despite several updates from the unit around areas such as revamping the tech behind screening and advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) over the last six months.

Even so, “some have been wondering” what NHSX has been up to, said Gould in a blog post. He outlined a series of achievements in areas such as the NHS App, new online services such as a record locator, digital standards, an events program related to digital innovation in healthcare and various aspects of AI, as well as more than 80 blueprints around digitisation published through the Global Digital Exemplar knowledge-sharing platform.

“We have quietly been working on some important projects that will help the NHS,” said Gould. On the other hand, he stressed that he wants to avoid “turning NHSX into a leviathan”.

“We needed to build expertise in a series of new areas to fulfil the role we’ve set ourselves, but we won’t grow bigger than we need to,” said Gould.

He said NHSX will unveil a detailed plan that will show how technology will underpin and help deliver the NHS Long Term Plan.

“In keeping with how we want to operate, we won’t launch a fully formed magnum opus on the world, but put out a series of draft elements over time, looking for comments,” he said. “We will start with the vision and overall plan.”

In terms of achievements so far, Gould noted that NHSX has been “laying the foundations for a new approach” to digital in healthcare. He cited examples such as working on ways to unblock the bottleneck in the NHS App library, a new approach to scaling applications as a means to enhance productivity, and working on ways to provide more commercial support to the frontline in procuring IT, with a centre of expertise to advise on any arrangements involving data.

On specific projects, Gould said the NHS App – which he intends to keep “thin” rather than “all singing and dancing” as originally intended, with support given to providers of third-party apps – has achieved national coverage, with 1.9 million logins and more than 107,000 appointments made in the last six months.

In partnership with NHS Digital, seven services have been enabled to connect to the NHS login since NHSX’s launch, with 11 more on the way, and 49 approved to begin work. “These are great examples of NHSX and NHS Digital working closely together,” said Gould.

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The partnership between NHS Digital and NHSX also featured prominently in other areas of Gould’s progress update, including the definition and testing of standards in areas such as medications. Standardisation is considered to be a key area of focus to ensure digital success in the healthcare system.

According to Gould, NHSX has been working to improve identity management across the NHS by integrating the electronic staff record platform and NHSMail, as well as a pilot for use of digital staff passports.

On AI, Gould noted the launch of the AI Award in Health and Care, which provides £140m over three years to support testing and evaluation of AI technologies, as part of the wider AI Lab.

Other highlights around AI cited by Gould included a roundtable earlier this month where he convened a group of regulators to talk about AI. Attendees included a number of NHSX executives as well as NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson, UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, Care Quality Commission chief executive Ian Trenholm, and Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation chairman Roger Taylor.

Although NHSX has been keeping busy, the main constraint the team currently faces relates to the human resources the unit has to move projects forward.

Gould noted the recruitment of the unit’s first permanent CTO as a recent example that progress has been made in boosting the team’s expertise and capacity. He said the unit will seek to fill a number of other senior IT roles in the next few months, including a director of AI and a CIO, which should be announced soon. 

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