The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology but digital leaders must continue to promote their use once the crisis is over, the national CIO and CNIO have said.

Speaking on the first day of Virtual Summer School 2020 on how Covid-19 has changed digital leadership, Sonia Patel, NHSX CIO, and Natasha Phillips, NHSX CNIO reflected on how quickly the NHS adopted digital tools and the importance of continuing to drive innovation.

Within a matter of weeks hospitals and staff has adopted tools they had long been championing as digital leaders, but it’s vital that the NHS keeps up those processes in order to design through digital in the future, they said.

“One of the barriers has been, certainly in my profession, is that there is a senior tier that are less comfortable with it and you need to engage them in order to get to the other tiers,” Phillips told the audience who were tuning in from all over the country.

“So we ensured senior staff got more digitally savvy in that time [during Covid] and I’ve seen a real shift in their behaviours around that.”

But while leaders are keen on digital tools at the moment, Phillips said one of her takeaways from the pandemic was that while we “reimagine” healthcare it’s important to keep everyone on board.

“While it might be easier to engage senior leaders in digital at the moment don’t assume it will be easy and don’t assume you won’t have some of that slippage so you need to bear that in mind in your approach because there is still a lot to do in terms of adoption and sustainability,” she added.

Patel spoke of how the pandemic felt like the “CIO’s hour” as all their ideas around technology that previously might have been overlooked became essential.

“As a digital leader having a shared purpose alongside your medical directors and boards, trustees and CEO was really something that helped us move things forward at an unprecedented pace,” she said.

Speaking about her new leadership role with NHSX she added: “It’s about ensuring that we keep with the agility and the normal processes that we have struck up during Covid into the future work in trying to design out in terms of digital.

“I think what happened during Covid is that we did what mattered rather than a lot of stuff we’re compelled to do because we’ve been told to do.”

Aside from managing the digital agenda Patel emphasised the importance of taking a break to recharge during what has been an incredible stressful time.

“Even in the heat of the moment and when things are urgent it is important to just take time out and think for five minutes before making a decision,” she added.

“Most of us have lost a lot of sleep and a lot of time but in some ways I think it’s well worth it if this has changed the dialogue on the digital agenda for the NHS moving forward.”

As expected, Covid-19 dominated discussions during the first morning of Virtual Summer Schools, including the NHS’s preparedness for the pandemic and the work underway to prepare for a possible second wave in winter.

Organisations and staff were congratulated for “rising up” to the challenge of Covid-19, with acknowledgment given to the reduction in bureaucracy that allowed organisations to rapidly achieve long-term digitisation goals.

Moving forward the NHS will look to using richer datasets to deliver a more personalized view of individual risks of Covid-19, including race and ethnicity, medications and past treatment, BMI and underlying conditions.

You can follow all the latest updates from the Digital Health Virtual Summer School by following the #DHVSS20 hashtag on Twitter.