The CEO of NHS Digital has shared what lessons the organisation has learned over the last year as it dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at Digital Health Rewired on 16 March, Sarah Wilkinson listed her five key digital takeaways from the last year which has seen NHS Digital involved in a number of national projects including the shielded patient list and scaling up NHS 111 Online.

The organisation processed data requests at a “phenomenal rate”, she told the Digital Leadership Summit.

Wilkinson’s first lesson was ‘the NHS had extraordinary digital, data and technology capability’, adding that the organisation had ‘no idea what we were capable of’.

She referenced when she first started at NHS Digital in 2017 saying it felt like the healthcare system was “haunted by the ghosts of the past” and there seemed to be a sense of “anxiety about what NHS IT could achieve”.

Moving forward, the NHS Digital chief said the health system must set its eyes on “much greater prizes” as it goes forward.

Another lesson was ‘together we are stronger’ with Wilkinson adding that “we need to leverage the trust we’ve built over the last year to co-design the future”.

“National, regional and local teams are equally capable, equally powerful and equally important,” she said.

“The combination of our efforts can be much greater than the sum of the parts. I would say that pre-pandemic we really didn’t have a clear, shared understanding of the respective roles of national, regional and local teams and coming out of the pandemic I think we still don’t, so I do think getting a much clearer contract between us is pretty critical work for the year ahead.

“But what we do now know is that we can do really great work together, we can make great progress digitising the service overall if we have a bold approach to national level services and a system-wide digital service architecture.

“This does require the system at large to trust the centre and it requires the centre to focus constantly, and with humility, on addressing regional and local needs and not building castles in the sky.”

Other lessons also included:

  • ‘We need to get out of our own way – we need to ask ourselves what can not go back to, ever’
  • ‘Driving performance drives capability – clarity of demand and freedom to operate lets talented individuals soar’
  • ‘Rest and recovery matter, hugely – our staff are extraordinary people, but they are not unbreakable’

“I hope some of those lessons resonate with some of you,” Wilkinson concluded.

“I am quite sure that if we learn from the last year, we can really move mountains over the next five years compared with what was achieved in the five pre-pandemic years. We can and we must be confident about our ability to digitise the healthcare system together.”

Digital Health Rewired 2021 is running from 15-19 March and is free for everyone from NHS, public sector, independent providers, charities and education sectors, plus start-ups less than three-years old.

You can book your place here