The success of the flagship GDE programme, channelling NHS IT investment into a small number of hospital and mental health trusts, should be judged by the extent to which knowledge is effectively spread across the whole NHS.

This was the yardstick set by the man responsible for delivering the GDE programme, NHS England’s head of digital technology, Paul Rice.

“The first ambition is for GDE organisations to take us to the next level of digital maturity,” Rice, said last week.

This will then be followed by spreading the lessons from the few receiving investment to the many, Rice told delegates at eHealthWeek in London on Thursday.

“We need a spread strategy that is sustainable”, said Rice.  “There are lots of good instances of good practices but they need to be spread”.

Unless there is a successful strategy for sharing lessons, and money to back this, the 16 hospital and seven mental health GDEs will risk becoming isolated islands, he acknowledged.

NHS England says this will be achieved by the next wave to follow GDEs, the so-called fast followers.  Rice noted: “The fast follower element is as important as exemplars”.

Each GDE will, in conjunction with NHS England, has selected one, or occasionally two trusts, to partner with to help them learn from the original GDE.  In some cases, this will be sharing software or a common IT team, in others about adopting standard methodologies and processes.

“The fast followers process is about identifying partner organisations able to accelerate their work on becoming more digitally mature,” said Rice.

For the 16 hospital GDEs the fast followers will double the number of organisations covered.  “Fast followers will see GDEs increase from 16 to high 30s and enable us to establish the idea of blueprints – proven models that the next organisations can look at and select to transform their organisation.”

Rice stressed that blueprints will not be technical schematics – though this will be necessary too.  Instead “it will a set of best practice blueprints that can be adopted by other organisations.”

To help develop these blueprints and evaluate them NHS England has awarded a research contract that will also include elements of evaluation. “We need a critical friend on our shoulder to help us,” said Rice.

A further GDE contract has been awarded to Gem Arden Commissioning Support Unit to spread lessons from the GDE programme

“We will have a party to draw out learning of story to date, so rest of NHS not peering in wondering about how they can benefit.”