‘Tech transformation is coming’ – Hancock unveils £475m digitisation fund in first speech as health secretary

Matt Hancock also rebuffs criticism of virtual GP service


Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images​

New health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has pledged funding of almost £500m to help the NHS invest in digital technology.

Giving his first address since taking on the health brief, Hancock (pictured above) told staff at West Suffolk Hospital that the money would “help jump start the rollout of innovative technology aimed at improving care for patients”.

Some £400m will be given to hospitals to invest in technology that improves patient safety and allows more people to access health services at home.

Meanwhile, £75m will be set aside to enable NHS trusts to acquire digital systems that increase efficiencies and reduce errors when compared with paper-based platforms.

“Of course, money alone won’t work,” Hancock said.  “We will put in place the data standards, and support the workforce to adopt change too. Some of this is about inventing new technology but, in lots of places, it is about adoption – because we know there are places where this technology is working.”

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The health secretary claimed that the process of inventing or identifying the technology represents “the small part” of the process of driving digitisation.

“The big part is embedding a culture of always looking for the best possible technology and embracing it,” he said. “I want to drive that culture change. And I want to work with everyone across the NHS and social care system to embrace the next generation of technology.”

Hancock added: “We will work with suppliers who want to embrace this change. And I’m crystal clear that suppliers who drag their feet or threaten to stand in the way won’t be suppliers for long.”

The former DCMS secretary also flagged up the importance of data, including the introduction of interoperable common standards and tools that allow NHS staff to securely access and use data.

There will also be a drive to better “think about how the technology so many of us use in daily life can be joined up with the resources we have in the health system”, Hancock said. The government is already working with Amazon to ensure content from the NHS Choices website is optimised for voice-activated technology – including, but not limited to, the e-tailer’s Alexa device.

“From today, let this be clear: tech transformation is coming,” Hancock said. “The opportunities of new technology, done right across the whole of health and social care, are vast. Let’s work together to seize them.”

‘The way forward is not to curb the technology’
The health secretary revealed that he uses GP at Hand – a smartphone-based virtual GP surgery with which people across London are now able to register as NHS patients. Since its launch across the capital last year, the service, which is provided by London-based company Babylon Health, has attracted strong rebuke from some health professionals – including from the Royal College of General Practitioners, whose chair Helen Stokes-Lampard claimed GP at Hand would increase pressure on doctors and create “a twin-track approach to general practice”.

Hancock acknowledged this criticism, but vowed that the technology is here to stay.

“The small part is finding or inventing the technology. The big part is embedding a culture of always looking for the best possible technology and embracing it.”
Matt Hancock, health secretary

“Some people have complained that the rules don’t work for care provided in this revolutionary new way. Others have said the algorithms sometimes throw up errors,” he said. “Emphatically: the way forward is not to curb the technology, it’s to keep improving it and – only if we need to – change the rules, so we can harness new technology in a way that works for everyone: patient and practitioner. I want to see more technology like this available to all, not just a select few in a few areas of the country.”

Technology was one of three priority areas identified by Hancock in his speech. The NHS workforce was another, with the health secretary pledging to improve training and support and better help GPs deal with their workload. 

The third, and final area was prevention. Hancock said he wants to focus on giving people “the tools they need to manage their own physical and mental health needs closer to home”.

Prior to being appointed health secretary, Hancock spent two years at DCMS, first as minister for digital, then latterly as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. He was replaced in that post by former attorney general Jeremy Wright.

Sam Trendall

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