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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has expedited the merger of NHS England and NHS Digital in order to create a more streamlined technology and support body.
The merger of the organisations was originally announced in November 2021 as part of a review carried out by NHS Digital chair Laura Wade-Gery, which recommended the move as a way to improve care, centralise the NHS workforce and accelerate service digitisation.
The move, which will see NHS Digital’s role as a separate arm’s-length body of the DHSC cease to exist as staff and assets are transferred to NHS England, was due to happen at the end of March 2023, but will now take place in early January 2023.
The DHSC hopes the move will lead to more streamlined data-sharing processes across the NHS, and that by improving data sharing, patients will get better care and be able to make more informed choices about their care, as well as gaining easier access to electronic patient records through “accelerated digital transformation services for patients”.
Once the merger has taken place and NHS Digital ceases to exist, the NHS technology function – now within NHS England – will go through the wider Creating a New NHS England change programme, which aims to ensure that the government retains the “necessary talent and expertise of NHS Digital”.
NHS Digital was set up in 2013 as the technology partner for the NHS, and was then called the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).
It was established following former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s reform of the NHS, separating policy, delivery and commissioning. It was initially responsible for infrastructure and contracts around data collection and analysis, but as the organisation continued to develop, it was renamed NHS Digital in 2016 to better reflect its status as the NHS’s technology organisation.
Since then, it has grown dramatically and been responsible for some of the biggest NHS transformation projects to date, including the launch of NHS 111 online and the NHS App.
But its exact role has been confusing, both for those inside the organisation and those outside it. This did not improve when former health and social care secretary Matt Hancock launched a new technology organisation, NHSX, to lead on NHS technology strategy.
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However, two years later, NHSX still had no finalised governance arrangements and its overlapping responsibilities with NHS Digital often led to confusion. In February 2021, it was decided that NHSX would become part of the NHS Transformation Directorate, which also sits under NHS England.
But moving NHS Digital to become part of NHS England to create a single statutory body for data, digital and technology has not been well received by all.
In March 2022, former NHS Digital chair Kinglsey Manning penned a letter to the British Medical Journal, saying the plans would endanger the rights of citizens in regard to how their data is collected and used by the NHS, and called the move a “grave error”.
Manning, who quit after a disagreement over the publication of statutory statistics, argued that the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 had already given NHS England too much oversight of NHS Digital, and that since 2016, its influence over the body had grown.
“In effect, NHS England will be able to decide that its legitimate interest[s] override those of the citizen and the patient, with little or no external constraint or scrutiny,” he wrote. “With no requirement for transparency and with additional barriers to citizens asking for information about the use of their data, individuals may never know what NHS England chooses to do with their data.”