Introducing NHSX - the new digital service for the National Health Service

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 19, 2019
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that new organisation will bring together tech leadership that will be responsible for changing technology transformation across the NHS.

nhs health
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has this week announced the creation of a new joint unit - NHSX - which will effectively become the digital service for the National Health Service (NHS). The news come off the back of Hancock’s recently released technology strategy for the NHS, which focusing on open standards, interoperability, user-led design and a cloud-first approach.

Hancock has said that vendors that don’t comply with the new playbook for NHS tech will be phased out in the coming years.

Comparisons between NHSX and the Government Digital Service (GDS) are already being made, which is unsurprising given that it will operate as a central function for the NHS and will be responsible for setting policy, standards and making sure that all source code is open by default (amongst other things).

However, it is early days. It is still not clear what official authority NHSX will have over the diverse range of organisations across the health service, nor do we yet know who will head it up and what leadership team will be put in place.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said that NHSX will aim to “create the most advanced health and care service in the world” and the currently “NHS technology relies on systems designed for a pre-internet age”.

It also stated that patients are not getting the care they need because “their data does not follow them round the system”.

The announcement claims that NHSX will work with the NHS and the wider digital economy to build “world-class digital services” and that experts in tech, digital, data and cyber security will form part of the team.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said:

“Modern technology has an incredible potential to change people’s lives for the better and revolutionise the care they receive.

“Because I care about patients getting the best treatment, I care about the NHS getting the best technology. But everyone knows how hard it’s been to get the NHS to adopt the best in digital. We’ve set out a clear tech vision for the NHS, which underpins our NHS Long Term Plan. Now we’re bringing together the tech leadership into NHSX, which will be responsible for harnessing the true potential of technology to transform care, save lives, free up clinicians’ time and empower patients to take greater control of their own health.

“NHSX will combine some of the best minds from among the NHS, leading innovators, and government into one unit to set national policy, remove red tape and create a culture of innovation to allow the best innovations to flourish.

“This is just the beginning of the tech revolution, building on our Long Term Plan to create a predictive, preventative and unrivalled NHS.”

Key responsibilities

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, NHSX’s key responsibilities are set to include:

  • setting national policy and developing best practice for NHS technology, digital and data - including data-sharing and transparency
  • setting standards – developing, agreeing and mandating clear standards for the use of technology in the NHS
    ensuring that NHS systems can talk to each other across the health and care system
  • helping to improve clinical care by delivering agile, user-focused projects
  • supporting the use of new technologies by the NHS, both by working with industry and via its own prototyping and development capability
  • ensuring that common technologies and services, including the NHS App, are designed so that trusts and surgeries don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time
  • making sure that all source code is open by default so that anyone who wants to write code for the NHS can see what we need
  • reforming procurement – helping the NHS buy the right technology through the application of technology standards, streamlined spend controls and new procurement frameworks that support our standards
  • setting national strategy and mandating cyber security standards, so that NHS and social care systems have security designed in from the start
  • championing and developing digital training, skills and culture so our staff are digital-ready
  • delivering an efficient process for technology spend, domain name management and website security

The Department added that the CEO of NHSX will have strategic responsibility for setting the national direction on technology across organisations. They will be accountable to the Health Secretary and chief executives of NHS England and NHS Improvement.

NHSX will also work closely with GDS and other central government functions to learn from their experiences and ensure there is “continue alignment with the Digital, Data and Technology profession across government”.

Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive of NHS Digital, said:

“The NHS Long Term Plan describes a hugely ambitious vision for the next generation of the NHS and much of that vision depends on new digital, data and technology capabilities. The program of digital transformation ahead of us is extraordinary in terms of its scale, its complexity and the extent to which it can change lives.

“It will require sophisticated strategic planning, strong leadership and very tight partnership between organisations across the system. This new joint venture between the organisations who currently define digital strategy and commission digital services will create cohesion in these activities by concentrating work and capabilities in one unit.

“Within NHS Digital we view NHSX as an important and welcome initiative and we are absolutely committed to working closely with colleagues in NHSX to make this new venture a success.”

My take

It’s not often that I agree with Hancock, but this is a smart move and one that’s potentially quite exciting. The challenge for NHSX will be one that’s very similar to the one facing GDS. Fragmented organisations don’t respond well to central control. You only have to recall the disasters of the National Programme for IT to understand how little NHS organisations like being told what to do. A collaborative, thoughtful approach from the start will be welcome. One that focuses on setting standards and boundaries, but working collaboratively on the approach. We still don’t know who the leadership will be for this organisation will be, which will also be key. We will be following this closely.