Matthew Swindells has today praised the progress of NHS digitisation efforts during his keynote address at the Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester.

In a refreshingly upbeat speech from NHS England’s famously-candid national director for operations and information, Swindells suggested NHS IT had taken “a huge step forward” in the past two years.

He argued this had been driven largely by NHS England’s global digital exemplar (GDE) and sustainability and transformation partnership (STP) programmes.

He also suggested the NHS had fostered enthusiasm around IT transformation that was finally being picked up by executive boards.

Swindells’ comments on Wednesday stood in stark contrast to those he made in October 2017, when he claimed England’s most digitally-advanced hospitals were “mediocre by international standards”.

This did not go unacknowledged by NHS England’s national director. “I travelled many places around the world and I would say our hospital IT was about on par with Chile,” he told delegates at Wednesday’s conference.

“Certainly in the next six months, I would expect five or more of our GDEs to be getting themselves accredited as near-paperless with the international standard for HIMSS Level 7 hospitals.

“I think that’s a huge step forward, because we were nowhere near that two years ago.”

Board enthusiasm

Further, Swindells alluded to an attitude shift toward IT at board level. “It has developed an enthusiasm. When I go to speak at IT conferences now, there are chief executives on the platform talking about technology in their organisation, not just IT directors.”

Swindells said the next stage was to move away from a focus on individual institutions to looking at how this “hangs together” through integrated care systems.

This, Swindells said, would be facilitated through STPs, specifically via the recently-announced £412m Health System Led Investment (HSLI) programme.

“We want them to tell us how, as a system, they will be spending over the next five years.”

Swindells explained Local Health and Care Record Exemplars (LHCREs) would be the driving force behind the technology that would link all aspects of the care system together.

“This integrated platform is the basis of everything else we’ll do,” he said, adding that further LHCRE waves would follow that would “bring the whole of the country on board” within the next two to five years.

As Digital Health News reported last month, the HSLI prospectus revealed a business case for the expansion of LHCREs was “already underway”.

Swindells also provided an update on NHS England’s single source of truth project, which aims to unite information from commissioners  and providers into a single dataset.

“Our intention is to give that back to the country and back to the NHS, so that when I sit down to talk with an organisation, we can get rid of wasted time squabbling about accuracy of data.”

He also waxed lyrical about the potential for artificial intelligence, population health and precision medicine enabled through genomics, which he suggested was “not the stuff of science fiction” and was “within our grasp within the next two, three, five years”.

Get creative

However, Swindells noted that trusts needed to be “creative” about how technology was used and not just drop it on top of old models.

“Moving forward with current models of care is not a viable option. We couldn’t staff it even if we could afford it, and anyway it’s wrong.

He added: “This is about closing the loop on research and getting faster adoption of new innovation for patients. If we don’t digitise our health service we are condemning people to die.”