Unsurprisingly, recently appointed Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock gave a speech this week at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham to outline some of his plans for digital reform within the NHS. Hancock, however, joins a long line of political leaders that have touted the potential of technology change across the NHS, but have frequently failed to deliver.
The Secretary of State also announced plans to extend the 100,000 genome project, which aims to use genomic sequence data to provide cancer patients with tailored care and treatment.
But Hancock’s speech was also overshadowed by a former Minister’s comments at a fringe conference event, which detailed how poorly the government executes on digital investments in the health service.
Hancock joined the Department of Health and Social Care from DCMS, where he was previously the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Since receiving his promotion over the summer, he has already committed more than £400 million towards ‘tech transformation’ within the NHS.
Previous digital transformation plans across the health service have failed spectacularly at worst or been slow to get off the ground at best. The worst example being the National Programme for IT, which ended up costing the taxpayer billions with little to show for it. However, since then, plans for a ‘paperless NHS’ have also been a good bit of PR, but ultimately very delayed.
This didn’t deter Hancock from stating that the Conservative government is committed to tech transformation in the health sector. He began his speech by explaining why change is necessary. He said:
One of the major reforms we need to see is bringing new technology across the health and care system. Of course introducing new technology can be bumpy. But the potential benefits are huge.
But the NHS is still the biggest buyer of fax machines in the country...maybe even the world. And this is putting even greater pressures on our NHS staff.
In some hospitals a nurse still goes round with a clipboard to find out where beds are in use and where they’re empty. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Hancock gave an example of Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, which has developed an in-house programme that allows all staff to know where the empty beds are at all times. Hancock said:
Patients get better treatment and it’s so much easier for staff. So we’re going to sort out the technology in the NHS, because our NHS deserves better.
100,000 Genome Project
David Cameron launched the 100,000 Genome Project back in 2012, which saw the government set up a new company - Genomics England - which sees patients give consent for their genome data to be linked to information about heir medical condition and health records, for researchers to analyse and provide more tailored care.
Hancock said that the project is a ‘cutting edge opportunity’ that will now be extended. He said:
Today, it takes on average more than 5 years to diagnose rare diseases with endless tests and trial treatments.
But thanks to the 100,000 genome project, now, by combining your own gene sequence with machine learning on others, you can be diagnosed in days.
And what’s more, from just a swab of saliva, there’s the potential to design a drug specifically to treat your unique biological code.
So I can announce today that we’re expanding our 100,000 genome project so one million whole genomes will now be sequenced with a long term vision of 5 million. Wnd I want to make it available to all.
Hancock said that this will mean that the NHS Genomic Medicine Service will roll out access to genomic testing ,with the aim of introducing tailor made treatments and tailor made drugs that are the best fit for a patient “not a best guess”.
However, on the same day that Hancock delivered his speech a former minister was speaking at fringe event at the conference organised by the Taxpayers Alliance, where spoke of the “horror” of previously being handed £4.2 billion to create a paperless NHS in England by 2020 without a plan for how to do it.
According to the BBC, George Freeman, who’s role was digitising the NHS, explained how civil servants were only told to set out their plans after the money had been allocated.
He added that when he visited the team charged with designing the new digital health care system, they had been “hired from Shoreditch” and were “in a little hot house with bean bags and whiteboards and Post-it notes everywhere”.
The Treasury should have said you are not even having a penny until we have got your delivery plan and until we know that you are not just going to buy a system off the shelf from some big company.
He added that “top down” solutions never work and that he believed the answer was “lots of local digital solutions” designed by doctors, and that the IT industry would “quickly” work out how to integrate them. Freeman said:
Hiring an off-the-shelf big package from one of the big companies has proven time and again to fail.
This isn’t the first time a Health and Social Care Secretary of State has touted the benefits of technology, and it certainly won’t be the last. Our experience of Hancock at DCMS is that he’s excellent at PR and saying the right things, but has yet to really deliver anything substantial. Whilst it’s good that we have a minister in the department that has experience in digital and will make it a priority, time and proper outcomes will be the real test.