Sarah Wilkinson is to step down as chief executive of NHS Digital after four years.

Wilkinson will leave her role in the summer this year. She said it was a “privilege” to work for an “extraordinary” organisation.

“It has been the privilege of my career to serve as chief executive of NHS Digital. It is an extraordinary organisation, with extraordinary people. For many years now we have made a substantial contribution to the health and care system,” she said.

“In 2020, as we responded so brilliantly to the pandemic, it is a source of pride and deep satisfaction to me that we were able to contribute so positively to the work of the NHS at such an unprecedented and nationally critical time.

“I believe there is a unique opportunity ahead for the digitisation of the system. As we emerge from the pandemic, the NHS has an appetite and a need for digitisation that is radically greater than it was in the period beforehand.”

Wilkinson added that as work associated with the pandemic slows down and a new programme for transformation gets underway, she decided it was time for the organisation to be led by a new chief executive.

“As an organisation, NHS Digital is now confident and growing in its abilities, from designing and building new digital products and platforms, to managing clinical data at scale, to operating technology systems and services and defending against cyber-attacks,” she said.

“As the work associated with the pandemic starts to stabilise, and planning commences for the ambitious program of transformation over the next few years, I have come to the conclusion that it would be better for a new CEO to step into the role now so that they can provide continuous leadership over the programs of that post-Covid agenda, and now is an appropriate time for me to leave the organisation.

“That new CEO will be able to build upon strong foundations in an organisation that knows what it can do, and I will work closely with them to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership for our programmes, products, and people.”

NHS Digital is seeking an interim chief executive for the coming months. Wilkinson will work closely with them to ensure continuity of strong leadership for NHS Digital’s operational and delivery priorities, according to a statement.

The NHS Digital Board will run an open competition to recruit for the role on a permanent basis later in the year.

Professor Sudhesh Kumar, vice chair of NHS Digital Board, said: “Sarah has been a powerfully effective leader for NHS Digital over the last few years. The scale and pace of the transformation in the organisation and its capabilities she has driven over the last four years is enormous.

“The impact of her leadership has been seen most clearly in the organisation’s rapid, extensive and pivotal role in the national response of the health and care system to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The fact that she is recognised as one of the most influential leaders in digital and technology is a testament to all that she has delivered for health and care as well as her undoubted leadership qualities.”

An influential person

Wilkinson was named the most influential person in UK IT in 2021 as part of Computer Weekly’s UKtech50 at the end of February.

She joined NHS Digital as chief executive in 2017. Wilkinson was previously chief technology officer at the Home Office and head of corporate systems technology at Credit Suisse.

As part of her role she oversees digital transformation strategies in the health and social care setting and has led a team on a large programme of work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This included ensuring fast access to accurate data, supporting research projects with deep data analysis and expertise, and ensuring that rich data visualisation was available for experts to swiftly understand the progression of Covid-19.

In an interview with Digital Health News last year, Wilkinson said the pandemic had shone a light on the importance of digital services, adding that healthcare technology was “here to stay” after the crisis.

Recently Wilkinson also oversaw the largest known public sector data network transition programme, moving hundreds of NHS and social care sites from a legacy data network to an updated version which is expected to save the heath service £75million a year.

Under Wilkinson’s leadership NHS Digital has also begun to expand its horizons, recently signing a deal with DXC Technology and CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, to help improve data sharing across different organisations locally and internationally.

Wilkinson’s work in national digital programmes also saw her named as one of the Global Top 100 Data Visionaries by HotTopics. She was also named the second most influential woman in UK IT in 2017  as part of Computer Weekly’s ’50 Most Influential Women in UK Tech 2017’.