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Top 10 NHS IT stories of 2021

Technology has been central to the National Health Service response to the Covid-19 pandemic – we look back at the stories that made the headlines on 2021

The NHS has, of course, been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2021. The crisis has focused health service chiefs on the role of technology and accelerated digital transformation of the sector.

This year, plans were slowly put in place for tech to help the NHS recover from the pandemic, to catch up on lengthening waiting lists, and looks to make staff more effective through the introduction of digital innovations.

Going forward, the integration of health and social care will be heavily dependent on technology, and a new organisation structure that merged NHS Digital and NHSX will take a lead on the next steps in rolling out further IT projects. Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 stories about the NHS in 2021:

1. UK government publishes tech-enabled adult social care plan

The UK government has published a 10-year adult social care plan that includes a significant focus on the use of digital technologies to support people receiving care and caregivers.

Announced on 1 December, the long-awaited social care strategy is part of a broader £5.4bn investment plan for social care. To enable the reduction in care costs as well as greater choice, control and support for independent living, the plan includes a £1bn system reform programme that will back initiatives such as the improvement of digital and technological infrastructure.

2. Government relies on tech to reduce NHS waiting lists

The government plans to rely heavily on technology to reduce long NHS waiting lists and put the health service on a “sustainable footing”.

As part of the government’s £36bn investment into health and social care over the next three years, there will be a huge push in streamlining treatments and delivering an extra nine million checks, scans and operations for patients.

The government wants to make use of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual wards to tackle the backlog, and is pumping £160m into 12 different areas where new ways of working are being trialled.

3. NHSX and NHS Digital to merge with NHS England

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has announced it will integrate NHSX and NHS Digital into NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I) as part of a major workforce planning and technology-led exercise.

Under the reform, NHS Digital will become the health services CIO directorate, while NHSX will act as the strategy function of the transformation directorate, with the body responsible for the education and training of the health workforce, Health Education England, also set to be merged into NHSE/I.

4. Digital healthcare in use by nearly half of UK’s adult population

About 50% of the UK’s adult population have access to digital healthcare, according to new numbers released by NHS Digital.

Nearly 28 million adults in the UK registered with NHS login, the service supporting the NHS App. This is an increase from about 2.2 million users in September 2020. More than 16 million have signed up for the NHS App, according to the government statistics.

The surge in the number of users follows the addition of the NHS Covid Pass, the Covid-19 vaccination status service, on 17 May after joint work by NHSX and NHS Digital, with 12 million users signing up since the feature was launched.

5. PAC report slams reliance on consulting at NHS Test and Trace

A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report scrutinising Covid-19 contact-tracing programme NHS Test and Trace (NHST&T) said its reliance on consultants prompted by a shortage of technical skills in government contributed to a bill of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.

Published 27 October, the report describes NHST&T as a “muddled” and “overstated” programme, which is also considered one of the most expensive health programmes delivered since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a budget of £37bn over two years, the initiative equals to nearly 20% of the entire NHS England spending for 2020-21.

6. Chancellor sets aside £2.1bn to fund NHS IT modernisation

As part of the autumn 2021 Budget and Spending Review, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled £5.9bn of extra funding for the NHS – more than a third of which is being set aside for IT.

The main thrust of the announcement is for funding to help tackle NHS backlogs across England.

In the Budget and Spending Review, Sunak set out the investment in NHS capital funding to deliver about 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 compared with pre-pandemic levels.

7. Interview: Sarah Wilkinson, former CEO, NHS Digital

In 2017, Sarah Wilkinson stepped through the doors of NHS Digital for the first time, ready to take on what was arguably one of the biggest leadership challenges in the public sector at the time. Now, several years later, she leaves behind a drastically different organisation, with different priorities, challenges and operating landscape.

In her four years as CEO of NHS Digital, the health service and the public sector in general have gone through huge changes. Not only has there been a worldwide pandemic to deal with, but changes in government policies, structures and relationships have played a part in how the organisation has developed.

As Wilkinson prepared to take on a new role in Switzerland as the CIO of Thomson Reuters, she spoke to Computer Weekly, reflecting on her time as the NHS technology boss.

8. How healthcare organisations are tapping data analytics

Healthcare providers and institutions have been mining data for years to improve patient outcomes, advance medical research and cut waste in the case of regional healthcare networks. The trend will continue as digitalisation efforts intensify amid the pandemic, unlocking troves of data that can be used to support treatment of Covid-19 and national vaccination programmes.

9. NHS to issue 30,000 iPads to ambulance crews

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens announced plans to issue 30,000 iPads to ambulance crews across England. The iPads will allow paramedics to access people’s health records on the scene, helping them to assess injuries and make a decision on whether to treat a patient at the scene or take them to hospital.

The devices will also allow them to take and send photographs from accidents to specialist clinicians so they know what they will be dealing with when the patient arrives at the hospital, and can prepare better.

10. Post-pandemic recovery drives NHS digitisation

A survey of 85 individuals from 69 NHS organisations looking at new approaches to patient care in the Covid-19 era has reported that the health service is accelerating digital transformation.

As a result of the pandemic, clinicians who took part in the survey said that they are seeing increased demand in remote services (80%), rising patient expectations (71%) and pressures from the pandemic (65%).

The survey found that 62% of participants “strongly agree” that new pressures mean digital transformation is more important than ever to improve how they work. A further 38% “strongly agree” that they have to accelerate their transformation plans this year.

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