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Winter plan for health and social care gets £250m tech boost

Upgrades in screening to reduce waiting times and remote monitoring are among the initiatives to benefit from the budget allocation

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has announced the allocation of £250m in funding for technology initiatives as part of a wider plan to support health and social during the winter months.

Part of the £700m Targeted Investment Fund that falls under a previously announced £5.4bn NHS funding package, the budget for technology focused on winter preparations will be split across all regions in England, with the Midlands receiving the biggest chunk of £131m, followed by the North East and Yorkshire with £112m.

The money is intended to help advance hospital operations and address challenges in social care, and comes amid heightened concern around Covid-19 and the potential threat of new variants. According to the DHSC, the unprecedented pressure put on the health system during the pandemic means the NHS faces the challenge of offering more appointments, operations and treatments – and technology plays a significant role in various new practices the government aims to introduce.

“Ahead of what is going to be a difficult winter, we’re putting everything behind our health and care services, so everyone can access the services they need, when they need them,” said health and social care secretary Sajid Javid.

According to the DHSC, the funding will support an upgrade of outpatient spaces and MRI and screening technology to help reduce waiting lists. It will also see investment in technology to improve people’s experiences of care and help them manage their conditions.

Alongside news of the allocation of the funding, the government has also published a joint paper between the DHSC and NHS England and Improvement on its approach to health and social care during the winter months. The document sets out the plans in place and the challenges ahead: the currently high and potential increase in Covid-19 rates, as well as consistently high demand for health services, risks from other infectious diseases such as flu, and pressures on the workforce.

Among the measures in place for the winter, the document outlines plans to increase capacity and resilience in the health service, which includes quick discharge from acute hospitals through measures such as Covid-19 virtual wards. In September 2021, the government announced plans to make use of technology such as virtual wards and artificial intelligence (AI) and to tackle the backlog by prioritising patients who need to be seen quickly and identify the right level of care for each individual.

The paper on winter plans also noted that the NHS will be adopting “much better monitoring” of who accesses NHS services. This is described as a means to address disparities and roll out programmes aimed at preventing factors leading to poor health, such as smoking and obesity.

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In adult social care, the government said it will make “the best use of technology” to advance remote monitoring, as well as improving online communications in care settings. Earlier this month, the government announced 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.

Included in the reform is a tech and digitisation initiative which can receive up to £150m in funding for the next three years. Examples of new technologies to be piloted include the roll-out of acoustic sensors that monitor movement, which are intended to mitigate interruptions in sleep, while enabling carer monitoring and alerts.

The document on winter plans also noted that contact tracing will continue in the months to come, with NHS Test and Trace helping to find out who people may have passed the virus to and alert those contacts to self-isolate. In addition, the government will continue to encourage the use of the NHS Covid-19 App, the Covid-19 vaccination status service, as well as NHS online services for non-urgent health issues.

About 50% of the UK’s adult population have access to digital healthcare, according to NHS Digital. Nearly 28 million adults are currently 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 on 17 May after joint work by NHSX and NHS Digital, with 12 million users signing up since the feature was launched.

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