‘Remote monitoring and virtual wards’ – Javid unveils NHS tech transformation plan to clear Covid backlogs
Health secretary claims that use of NHS app is ‘at the heart of’ strategy to reform health service
The NHS app and other digital technologies are “at the heart of” a major new plan to transform the health service and address the backlog caused by the coronavirus crisis.
A new policy paper, A plan for digital health and social care, “sets out that health and social care will be delivered in a fundamentally different way”, according to the foreword by health secretary Sajid Javid.
The strategy outlines that “the NHS app will be at the heart of these plans”, with various new features to be added.
Within the next nine months, the government has committeed that the app will add functionality to allow users to book Covid-19 vaccines, register with a GP, receive messages and notifications from their GP and other clinicians, see any new information added to their patient record and request earlier data, and view and manage hospital appointments – if the trust in question is able to facilitate this.
Further improvements planned for the future include better links with screening services and clinical trials, and the provision of child healthcare records to parents.
With uptake boosted by the app’s provision of the NHS Covid Pass vaccination certification, the program now has 28 million users, with a total of 40 million citizens signed up for NHS Login – the system through which the digital services can be accessed.
“We saw during the pandemic how people grasped the opportunity to have healthcare at their fingertips,” Javid wrote. “I am determined to make this app the front door to NHS services, and this plan shows how we will add an array of new features over the coming years, with new functionality and more value for patients every single month. My vision is one in which the app is an assistant in your pocket.”
Developing the app will be the key component in achieving the goal of “supporting independent healthy lives” – one of four central objectives set out in the plan.
Alongside improvements to the mobile software will be upgrades to the NHS website to include “features that help people stay well, get well and manage their health”.
One of the commitments made in the strategy is that, by September 2024, patients will be able to use digital tools to “complete their hospital pre-assessment checks from home”.
The goal of “equipping the system digitally for better care” is perhaps the bedrock of the plan. This will include using artificial intelligences and other technologies to simplify diagnostics.
“These technologies support testing at or close to home, streamlining of pathways, triaging of waiting lists, faster diagnoses and levelling up under-served areas,” the document said.
By March 2025, all 42 integrated care systems across England – and the local NHS trusts they represent – will have in place “core digital capabilities, including electronic health records”, according to the plan.
Across the NHS, the collective workforce of specialist tech and data professionals will be grown to a total of 10,500 “through graduates, apprentices and experienced hires”. Degrees in health and social care disciplines will also see digital skills more deeply embedded into their curricula, while existing social workers will be provided with improved development programmes, including “offering accessible training and online resources”.
Procurement and oversight
The third of the four main goals is “accelerating adoption of proven tech” which the government believes can be achieved by “systematising tech research and development partnerships” by connecting front-line healthcare workers with commercial “innovators”.
The strategy also prioritises improving the NHS’s procurement of technology products by introducing “standards for interoperability, usability, clinical safety, cyber security and sustainability” that tech firms must meet.
“To contain system-wide tech costs, we are also doing more to leverage the system’s purchasing scale,” the plan added.
The last of the four overarching objectives is “aligning oversight with accelerating digital transformation”.
This will be supported by government “using our regulatory levers” and “enforcing standards” across the NHS and its suppliers from the tech industry.
“We are exploring oversight options with NHS England and the Care Quality Commission,” the plan said. “Any changes in the regulations will aim to signal to the health and social care sectors that digitisation is a priority, identify the essential, non-negotiable standards of digital capability and explain how we will monitor and support compliance where appropriate.”
Javid added: “We are embarking on a radical programme of modernisation that will make sure the NHS is set up to meet the challenges of 2048 – not 1948, when it was first established. This plan builds on our data strategy to revolutionise digital health and care, which will enable patients to manage hospital appointments from the NHS App and take more control of their own care at home, picking up problems sooner and seeking help earlier. Ensuring more personalisation and better join up of the system will benefit patients, free up clinician time, and help us to bust the Covid backlogs.”
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