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Sarah Wilkinson resigns as NHS Digital CEO

After four years at the helm of NHS Digital, CEO Sarah Wilkinson will leave in the summer of 2021, and the organisation is looking for an interim replacement

NHS Digital CEO Sarah Wilkinson will depart the organisation in summer 2021, after four years in the role.

Wilkinson joined NHS Digital in June 2017, after two years at the helm of the Home Office’s digital transformation programme. Commenting on her decision to leave NHS Digital, Wilkinson said serving in the role has been the “privilege” of her career.  

“It’s an extraordinary organisation, with extraordinary people,” she said. “For many years now, we’ve made a substantial contribution to the health and care system. In 2020, as we responded so brilliantly to the pandemic, it’s a source of pride and deep satisfaction to me that we were able to contribute so positively to the work of the NHS at such an unprecedented and nationally critical time.

“I believe there is a unique opportunity ahead for the digitisation of the system,” said Wilkinson. “As we emerge from the pandemic, the NHS has an appetite and a need for digitisation that is radically greater than it was in the period beforehand.

“As an organisation, NHS Digital is now confident and growing in its abilities, from designing and building digital products and platforms, to managing clinical data at scale, to operating technology systems and services, and defending against cyber attacks.”

She added that as the work associated with the Covid-19 pandemic begins to stabilise, and planning ensues for NHS Digital’s transformation programme, she has come to the conclusion that “it would be better for a new CEO to step into the role now so they can provide continuous leadership over the post-Covid agenda, and now is an appropriate time for me to leave the organisation”.

“That new CEO will be able to build upon strong foundations in an organisation that knows what it can do, and I will work closely with them to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership for our programmes, products and people,” said Wilkinson.

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The NHS Digital board is currently on the hunt for an interim CEO to hold down the fort for a few months, before running an open competition for a permanent replacement later in the year.

NHS Digital board chair Laura Wade-Gery said Wilkinson’s commitment to the organisation and her “unwavering and justifiable belief in its capabilities, people and potential has been clear from the moment I became chair last year”.

“Her leadership and deep technology expertise are unarguable, but I have been equally struck by her care for her people, even in the most challenging times,” she said. “I am sorry to see Sarah move on, but I know she leaves a confident organisation fully aware of what it can achieve as a legacy to her successors.”

Wilkinson recently emerged as the winner of the UKtech50 2021, and in her winner’s interview she spoke of how the pandemic has led to a huge amount of work for the organisation, with increasing leadership challenges.

“To move at pace, you have to make decisions fast,” Wilkinson told Computer Weekly at the time. “And [the NHS] is not actually a system which naturally makes decisions fast when it’s in business-as-usual mode. There are many organisations with similar, overlapping roles at the centre of the NHS. And often, making relatively straightforward decisions requires the alignment of so many parties that huge amounts of time and money are consumed.”

She also congratulated NHS Digital staff on the work they have done in the past year.

“We’ve got so many staff who’ve worked so intensely hard, and in such challenging circumstances, and again and again we’ve taken on major programmes of work – often with timeframes for delivery that seemed unmanageable – and in every case, we’ve come good,” said Wilkinson.

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