The Labour Party will streamline the process for innovators in the health service and overhaul the NHS App if it is elected to government in the next election, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has told delegates at the NHS Confederation Expo 2023 in Manchester. 

“Our health service is being held back by creaking, outdated technology. It’s time for an upgrade,” he said. 

A Labour government would create a “single front door” for innovators and “make proper use of the NHS App, he said, adding that during a recent visit to Israel he had seen demonstrations of medical technology that was around a decade ahead of that being used in the UK. 

He argued that every patient using the NHS App should be able to see their medical records, book appointments, link to upcoming appointment reminders and receive notifications if they are eligible for clinical trials.  

“If the NHS fails to secure the advantage of AI and digital for its patients, the private sector will,” he warned, adding that the service needed “deep and fundamental change to make the NHS fit for the future.” 

Streeting attacked the Tory government’s health record in power, focusing in particular on its failure to meet pledges to modernize the technology of the health service. Citing one example, Streeting noted that innovative technology able to rapidly map radiation therapy onto cancer cells is in use across the US but available in just one centre in the UK. Similarly, he said, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled technology to rule out cancer-free scans has been used in Hungary since 2021 but is not widely available in the UK. 

By contrast, he noted that 80% of NHS trusts are still using pagers, despite the fact that there is only one global provider of the devices still operating. Previous promises by Conservatives to get rid of fax machines in hospitals have also fallen by the wayside, he said.  

“There is a huge cost to inaction,” Streeting said. “The technology that exists today can instantly free up staff and make their work lives more bearable.” He quoted a report by the Institute for Progressive Policy Research showing that automation could be worth up to £12.5 billion in staff time.  

Kieran Hughes, president, Europe at Nordic Consulting, described Streeting’s  commitments as “laudable” and agreed with the points about a lack of funding in technology, however he criticised the lack of clarity in the speech.

Calling out the historical lack of funding in capital, specifically technology, and the ‘failure on digitisation’ are fair reflections,” he said.

“While Wes Streeting’s commitments are laudable, the question is, how is it going to be funded? It also doesn’t tackle the elephant in the room – the pressure on the existing workforce and bridging the digital skills gap.

“Labour needs to consider a shared service approach to be able to create the muchneeded digital workforce, particularly for specialist skills such as data and analytics, at scale and pace.

“This type of innovative initiative, which involves partnering with the tech industry to help train specialists and upskill the existing workforce, could be established within a matter of months.

“Only by working with specialist suppliers in this way, will the NHS be able to achieve these aspirational goals in digitisation.”