In his first major digital transformation speech since the pandemic began, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has spoken about how technology has made a greater impact on the ability of health and care providers to respond to COVID-19 than any other sector, and the vital role it will play in the future of healthcare as the government focus shifts to build back better.
In his speech at Digital Health Rewired, the Health Secretary outlined the scale of the progress that has been made in health and care adopting technology during the pandemic.
At the event, Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, said:
“This has been a difficult time for us all, but what we have found though is that the power of using the best available technology and developing new technology quickly has proved its worth – saving lives and keeping our health and care service standing at a time when it was under unbelievable strain like never before.
“Let’s think of some examples. Perhaps the one that touches the public most of all is that GP surgeries could keep operating remotely, because of the huge strides that have been made in telemedicine and then were made in the pandemic.
“Getting iPads into care homes to make sure people could stay in contact with their loved ones and we built on that digital infrastructure to make sure the testing and then vaccination programmes have been able to operate in a seamless way. And ultimately the data is at the heart of both of those programmes. Testing is merely the discovery of new data.”
The Health Secretary also announced further investment in the NHS frontline to fix historic IT problems and level up the field to ensure that every part of the NHS is ready to benefit from the remarkable digital transformation seen during the pandemic.
The second wave of NHSX’s Digital Aspirant programme will build on current successes to help digitise hospitals needing additional support. Seven trusts including East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust and Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital NHS Foundation Trust will receive up to £6 million each over the next three years to help deliver their digital ambitions – whilst a further 25 trusts will receive seed funding of £250,000 to develop their digital strategy and business cases.
The Health Secretary also said:
“First, we need to digitise more of the NHS that is not yet digitised. The starring role that healthtech has played in our response was no accident. It comes off the back of the relentless investment in the fundamentals.
“Last year NHSX launched the Digital Aspirant programme, tasked with boosting the procurement, deployment and uptake of technologies.
“The first wave of the programme helped 27 Trusts to boost their digital infrastructure and today I’m delighted to announce that we’re launching our next wave. Thirty more trusts will be starting their journey and becoming a Digital Aspirant. Seven trusts will get up to six million pounds over the next three years, and the rest will get seed funding to start creating their plans.
“And of course we’ll be offering further waves of funding in the years ahead. To do this, we’ll focus on all parts of the NHS.”
He gave examples of how technology has been essential in supporting the NHS to deliver care during the pandemic. This includes the rollout of 300,000 pulse oximeters to local health teams, enabling the NHS to set up virtual wards to care for thousands of people with covid whilst enabling them to stay in their own homes.
NHSX worked with local clinicians to combine digital tools with pulse oximeters, a gadget that clips onto the finger and can identify ‘silent hypoxia’, where oxygen levels are dangerously low but people have no symptoms. Patients can update their data which is automatically sent directly to their clinical teams and reduces the need for daily check in phone calls.
When clinicians in hospital or in the community spot a drop in their patient’s oxygen levels they can quickly bring them in to be checked over. Evidence from patients and clinicians has so far shown improvements to patient care and faster intervention as a result of remote monitoring.
He went on to speak about how technology can improve patient experience and outcomes, by reducing waiting times, speeding up diagnosis and offering faster paths to treatment, citing the example of teledermatology.
He also outlined the new investment in image sharing technology that will connect GPs with specialist hospital-based dermatologists in efforts to reduce waiting times and speed up the diagnosis of some skin conditions and potential cancers.
“I want us to be radical about reimagining how care is given, taking on what we’ve learnt.
“NHSX has published a procurement tool to allow images to flow from high street opticians to ophthalmology clinics and we’re working to help primary care clinicians safely share images with specialist dermatologists in secondary care.
“Both of these projects have a broader meaning, they mean quicker and more accurate advice for patients, and they will reduce unnecessary trips to hospital.
“I want to see much more of this big thinking about how we can use technology to fundamentally transform care.”
Every year around 900,000 people see their GPs for skin concerns or disease, resulting in around three million hospital outpatient consultations.
With an additional £5 million in investment, many GPs will be able to take images of skin conditions using equipment that attaches to a smartphone or tablet which can be shared with specialist dermatologists to review, offer advice and a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.
By sharing images this way the NHS could reduce unnecessary hospital appointments and speed up access to diagnosis and treatments, including two week wait skin cancer referrals.
The Health Secretary closed by highlighting technology and ingenuity has helped us through the pandemic and we must continue to use it as we face future challenges.
“This pandemic was the time when healthtech really came of age. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, including so many of you, it helped us through this crisis protecting our most vulnerable and bolstering our NHS.
“Now is the time to bottle the spirit we’ve seen. The ingenuity, the creativity, and the adaptability and put it in service of those solving the new challenges ahead.”