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NHS must up its digital game, says NHS Digital programme director

NHS Digital’s programme director for its digital collaboration service is looking at the potential of using voice recognition for NHS 111 services

The director of NHS Digital’s digital collaboration service, Cleveland Henry, has called on the entire health and care service to drive the use of technology locally, after revealing that the centre is exploring the potential of using HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) voice recognition technology.

Speaking at the UK Health Show, Henry said NHS Digital is exploring the potential of new technologies and increasing collaboration. He said the centre is working “hand in hand” with the Government Digital Service (GDS), including examining technology used by other government departments and “looking at how we can apply that to the NHS”. 

Earlier this month, HMRC’s now former interim chief digital and information officer, Mike Potter, said the department saw voice technology as “the future” because elderly people in particular do not find digital services easy, but can work with voice services.  

He said HMRC had implemented voice biometrics so people could authenticate themselves on the phone.  

Henry said NHS Digital is interested in learning from this and is looking at the potential for using the technology in healthcare, particularly for its national non-emergency helpline.

“HMRC is doing voice recognition on users connecting to call centres and we are exploring how that could potentially be used with 111 online and other services,” he said.

“We are working closely with GDS. Put it this way – we are not able to bring a tech solution to market unless it has gone through a GDS assessment.”

Henry said technology is “the easy bit”, and the main challenge is how to spread the benefit and ensure people on the ground actually use the technology available.

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“We need to drive the use of technologies across the system,” he said. “In some areas, we have had good coverage, but we also have challenges.”

Henry said that although more than 90% of GPs offer online services to patients, only 16.5% of the population are using GPs’ online services. 

“We have to look at the real activity rather than the reassuring statistics,” he said. “We can’t be complacent.

“This is not just about upping NHS Digital’s game, it’s about upping the game across the health and care service.”

Henry pointed out that there is a real skills problem in the health service, which NHS Digital is addressing through its recently announced digital academy. The NHS Digital Academy, a virtual training programme, will be run by Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, together with Harvard Medical School and the University of Edinburgh.

Henry said the NHS needs leadership on a local level from clinicians and other health professionals. “It’s about local organisations taking risks and exploring new ways or working, sharing new ideas and shaping new models of care,” he said.

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