That’s the opinion of Dr Sam Shah, who is the director for digital development at NHS England and who is working with suppliers and other partners to help develop customer-centric services in the NHS. Shah says the new technology strategy for the NHS will sponsor the creation of better healthcare services for the people that work in primary and secondary care, and for the citizens that rely on the NHS:
“It’s about creating a future healthcare system that uses the best of technology to improve care for the population. It’s designed around a number of components – innovation, infrastructure, digital services and being data-driven. Ultimately, all those components will come together to create a better ecosystem of suppliers in the NHS.”
Shah says those benefits will be driven by the new technology strategy’s focus on open standards, a move to the cloud and interoperability. The strategy, which was unveiled by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in October last year, attempts to set central standards for vendors, while encouraging local-level creativity. Shah – who spoke with diginomica/government at the recent Big Data World at Excel, London – says he doesn’t believe there is a “magical mix” when it comes to delivering digital change via the new technology strategy for the NHS:
“I think the components that are used will depend on the digital maturity, the level of digital penetration in the local area and the legacy systems that are in existence. The main point of the strategy is that it sets out an ambition for a different way of working.
“If we think about most systems in the NHS, they were designed for a particular purpose and a use case that serves the primary purpose. Most of the systems in use existed in the pre-digital era and sometimes before the internet came into existence. Now, in a post-digital era, there are different ways of doing things – that didn’t exist before – that we can use to improve both the systems we use and the care we provide.”
A positive reception
Shah’s knowledge of the systems comes from first-hand experience – as well as leading digital development for the NHS, he also works as a clinician in primary care in Kent. He says Hancock is an “excellent” secretary of state who’s focused on driving digital transformation across the health service. Shah says his interactions with clinical peers leads him to believe the aims of the new technology strategy for the NHS are being well received, even in the context of a health service that remains under significant pressure:
“Most of the people that I speak with have got to deal with the day-to-day issues that they face. These people might experience issues on the ground when they’re seeing patients that might be a challenge for them. But these people at the same time might also be enthused by the future vision and ambition of the NHS and what they believe could be achieved by adopting technology across the healthcare system in order to make a meaningful difference.”
Further steps towards that vision were enacted recently, when Hancock announced the creation of a new joint unit known as NHSX, which will effectively become the digital service for the NHS. The Department of Health and Social Care has said NHSX will aim to “create the most advanced health and care service in the world”. Shah recognises the detailed objectives of the nascent organisation are still to be clarified, yet he is also hopeful that NHSX will have a big impact:
“It’s still in its early days, which means there’s relatively little information other that what’s already in the public domain. Ultimately, it’s a mechanism to bring together the strategy levers, the policy levers and the ambition for digital transformation in one place across the healthcare system.
“That effort will be undertaken in a co-ordinated way that brings together the best of people that are involved in technology standards and those that consider the ways in which we can deploy technology into the NHS, including the people who are already leading digital transformation in the health service.”
A new approach
Hancock has already said vendors that don’t comply with the new playbook for NHS technology will be phased out in coming years. Shah recognises the combination of the new technology strategy for the NHS and NHSX will present challenges for old-school vendors. However, he believes pioneering suppliers will rise to these challenges and present joined-up services that help to improve the health service:
“It’s difficult to know which issues might emerge in the future. But if I think about the work that I’m involved in, we want to work with the vendor community to develop standards in an open way that the community can accept but which then make a difference to the NHS. That collaborative environment, where everyone works together to co-produce standards, is a useful way for us to progress and to actually change what’s on offer for providers in the marketplace and to open up the ecosystem within the NHS.”
Shah says it’s too early to make a guess as to the potential form of that ecosystem. However, he says the good thing is that there is an appetite out there amongst a range of vendors, both small and large, to work together. Shah says the likely result – in terms of both developments relating to underlying infrastructure and emerging technologies – is that innovative services are on the cusp of being created that will help boost levels of patient care:
“We’re seeing some really interesting collaborations take place between small, agile enterprises and innovators who are working with larger, more traditional, infrastructure providers. And that blend is useful, because that means we have a source that the health service can tap into which helps generate partnerships that are much more agile in the way they can deliver tools and services to meet the needs of consumers and users.”