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NHS digital solutions should be developed collaboratively with staff, report says

by Jess Hacker
29 November 2021

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Digital solutions in the NHS should be designed in collaboration with staff and patients, a report by the Nuffield Trust has said.

In the report, the think tank looked at the approach to digital health care taken by five European countries during the pandemic, to identify key learning for the NHS.

It found that supporting the workforce was an ‘essential part of digital transformation’, adding that any digital health care solution should be co-designed and implemented with users and staff.

The researchers cited Finland’s emphasis on providing digital training for people in medical school, which interviewees from the sector said helped to build their confidence with using new tools.

The report recommended that the NHS should better its understanding of what encourages people to engage with digital tech, and ensure that digital technology is embedded into staff education.

‘This is especially important given the increase in digital tools as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,’ it said, adding that effective project management and ongoing training would support its use.

In light of this, it said that the NHS must recognise the importance of non-clinical staff, such as project managers or data analysts, in supporting digital transformation.

Rachel Hutchings, a researcher at the Nuffield Trust, said: ‘Although digital transformation is not an end in itself, it will play a key role as health systems around the world recover from the pandemic.’

She added that this will ‘help the NHS to embed these solutions for the long-term, to the benefit of both patients and health care professionals’.

The pandemic has placed a greater focus on the use of digital technology in the NHS.

Last week, a DHSC report said action on digital transformation of the NHS should now be accelerated.

A CQC report last year found that the move to digital working during Covid-19 had ‘accelerated access to services’.

The NHS Long Term Plan had set a target for all providers to move away from a ‘largely paper-based’ model by 2024.

Short-term funding ‘challenging’

The report also said that annual, short-term funding for health care – while not a problem unique to the NHS – poses a challenge to implementing and training staff to use digital tech.

The researchers identified several issues with how digital transformation in the NHS is funded, in particular the use of capital funding rather than revenue.

It also cited the National Audit Office’s research which noted that trust expenditure on digital varies widely but is ‘consistently less than’ the 5% recommended by NHS England.

It noted that current policy aims to address some of these issues, including by allocating funding directly to integrated care systems (ICSs).

As ICSs would be in charge of their own digital transformation programmes, they would ‘in theory’ have greater control over resources and spending.

The key learning, it said, is that the focus must be on long-term and sustainable investment, recognising that digital is not a ‘one-off cost’.

Rather it should be integrated with wider spending, it suggested, so that organisations are able to ‘plan for the future’.

MPs in England last week progressed the Health and Care Bill – which will see ICSs become statutory bodies – to the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, NHSE earlier this month  tasked a GP, Dr Claire Fuller, with reviewing the ‘next steps’ for how PCNs will work in ICSs.