Brexit aside, one key area where the British Government has produced policy of note concerns the National Health Service (NHS) and digital health technologies. Last October, Health Secretary Matt Hancock detailed a compelling vision for medtech and digital in the NHS. And, at the end of February, a new NHS organisation, NHSX, was launched, with the express remit of building world class digital health services, in collaboration with tech ecosystems.
This isn’t, of course, the first time a government has tried to bring digital technology to bear on the notoriously curmudgeonly NHS (which still uses fax machines heavily). The National Plan for IT (NPFIT), announced in 2002 and rumoured to be the world’s largest computing project, collapsed amid problems over delivery and push-back from medical practitioners.
By comparison, though, the Department of Health’s new medtech plan looks far more assured of success. Two key points stand out. First, it emphasises distributed data and access, rather than centralised services, with common data standards ensuring compatibility. Second, it emphasises the role of culture and collaboration at all levels of the health service.
This second point is vital. Whether we talk about new drugs, equipment, or any other piece of technology, those involved in care delivery must actively embrace the new innovations and put them to use. Digital health tools developed by engineers in isolation from the front line are, almost by definition, doomed to failure (as was the experience with NPFIT).
So, the new generation of digital health products must be developed with patients’, carers’ and communities’ perspectives in mind – even built with their active (and meaningful) participation. The model envisioned in the Government’s Future of Healthcare paper makes this a little more likely.
There are many potential flies in the ointment. The NHS already boasts at least three “tech hubs” – with NHSX adding to their number. And, the NHS’s simultaneously monolithic and spread-out institutional structure makes it very hard for new technologies to gain traction nationally.
But NHSX, and the strategy behind it, could well help the UK build genuine global leadership in digital health. The reaction to its launch has been generally positive, and it aligns well with existing, well-regarded initiatives like the world-leading 100,000 Genomes Project.
Most importantly, this new strategy could enable the NHS – the world’s largest healthcare provider – to master the complex dynamics of designing, testing, and implementing new digital tools.
The result won’t just be a more productive health service, it could change the very meaning of healthcare as we know it.