Interoperability has become the highest single priority issue for NHS IT Leaders, according to the findings of the 2018 NHS IT Leadership Survey.

An overwhelming 82% of respondents said that interoperability that enabled systems and staff to share information on patients was their highest priority. In the 2017 edition of the survey, the figure was just 51%.

The next highest priorities identified were clinical engagement, identified by 76%; moving to paperless working (73%); and ensuring a reliable, resilient, secure infrastructure (67%).

The annual NHS IT Leadership Survey, carried out by Digital Health Intelligence, exclusively surveys the priorities and concerns of NHS digital leaders, including the most senior IT professionals and doctors and nurses working on digital projects.

The in-depth report provides a snapshot of the views of healthcare IT leaders in 2018.

A scattering of cloud

Another key finding for 2018 was that use of cloud services is rising across the health service, starting from a low base. In 2017, 21% of respondents said their organisation did not use cloud-based services for any part of their IT operation. This figure dropped to just 8% in the 2018 survey.

There was a sharp increase in positivity from NHS IT leaders, with almost 60% of respondents saying they felt the outlook was a positive one and just 9% thinking it was negative.

This reflects a significant change in mood from 2017, when 55% said the outlook was negative and 27% felt it was positive.

However, there were decidedly mixed opinions on NHS England’s flagship Global Digital Exemplar (GDE) and Fast Follower programmes, which are channelling limited investment into the most digitally-advanced trusts, to provide role-models for others.

Just 12% of NHS IT leaders said they thought the programme is accelerating NHS-wide digitisation though providing leadership and visible benefits.

One respondent, a CIO in an acute trust, said GDE had delivered benefits: “It has in the GDEs and will provide evidence for others.”

However, an overwhelming 82% of respondents said the GDE and Fast Follower programmes are creating an even greater gap between the digital haves and have-nots, and questioned the benefits. Some 5% said they didn’t know.

One typical response, from a nurse digital leader in a mixed acute and community trust, said: “I think it has created a digital divide that is getting wider with the many (non GDE\FF) allowed to slip further behind and are unsupported to digitalise.”

Growing optimism

Optimism that the NHS will be paper-light by 2020 – a long-standing government target – continues to fall, with now less than half of NHS IT leaders questioned believing the target will be reached.

However, 71% were confident their organisation would be paper-light by 2023.

The 2018 survey had 150 responses from NHS IT leaders from acute, mental health and community trusts, primary care organisations, clinical commissioning groups, commissioning support units, together with NHS organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Full copies of the survey report are available to subscribers to Digital Health Intelligence and all NHS IT leaders who completed the survey.