Ahead of the Digital Health Rewired conference in March 2024, Matthew Taylor explains why innovation and greater use of technology hold significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS

We live in a fast-paced, digital age, and it is important that the NHS keeps up. Greater and improved use of technology can benefit the service by enabling the delivery of better quality and faster care to patients, as well as relieving pressures on leaders and their staff. Whilst there are plenty of exciting innovations on the horizon such as AI, there are also a number of existing innovations which if adopted and implemented could further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS.

Recently we highlighted the potential that care co-ordination hubs can bring in helping manage demand and the capacity in the system. These digital hubs combine technology and collaboration. They are dedicated community teams of healthcare professionals carrying out at-home visits to those in need, and help patients go to the appropriate care point, in order to move away from A&E attendance and quickly divert people to the right place. However, to make these hubs successful, it is essential that there is buy-in and collaboration across the whole system. To implement these more widely, we know that partnership working will be important and through building trust with partners in order for data to be shared fluidly, this model can evolve to include other aspects such as risk stratification, data for population health modelling and prevention. While it will of course take time and resources to fully implement, these hubs have already been successfully run in trusts such as Royal Wolverhampton.

Another exciting innovation on the horizon is AI, which can be used for a myriad of purposes in healthcare; from optimising elective recovery waiting lists, to supporting clinicians with diagnosis. In August, an AI healthcare research project was announced, funded by UKRI. This highlights that AI is a growing area of interest and will be a key piece of the puzzle in the future of healthcare. It’s important to approach AI use with caution, as care must be taken to train models on diverse datasets to ensure algorithms do not exacerbate health inequalities.

Innovation adoption like this also requires a deep understanding of the problem, engagement with the people who will be impacted and ensuring futureproofing of the innovation by sustaining ways to make it financially viable, as outlined in our scaling innovation practical guidance.

Furthermore, in healthcare we need to make sure we can walk before we can run; there are several fundamental IT issues within organisations where data does not link up which limits the potential of more novel and innovative technologies. Shared health and care records need the ability to go beyond system boundaries and data needs to be shared between different IT systems to enable access and usability. By having a fluid convergence of data records between mental health, primary care and social care, services can meet the needs of the local area they look after. There has been some movement with data sharing and that is the Data for Research and Development Programme which is underway across the UK after getting funding from Treasury and with Secure Data Environments being set up across the country; this will help with access to data, safely and securely for external researchers, which will provide insights that can benefit local communities. To add, in the realm of data, the Federated Data Platform and Associated Services document published this year will also create a massive change to the NHS’s data infrastructure going forwards.

Digital transformation is also not just about the technology alone or the procurement of software but about the processes, culture, governance, and ways of working to meet people’s needs. While the above highlight’s today’s picture, we know that future innovations can help with the gaps in the workforce. We know that digital roles can fill capacity needed to deliver against targets, especially in places like the virtual ward rollout. Innovation can increase workforce, skills, capacity and capability in digital and data to deliver on key NHS digital transformation programme and as per Hewitt recommendations. However, for the Hewitt recommendations to come to life successfully, we need to get the basics right before we implement so we can harness what this digital era can provide. Such opportunities include delivering co-ordinated systems, as well as the sharing of data across invisible organisational boundaries (something I’ll be sharing at next year’s Rewired conference in March). Getting the fundamentals right can start from our ICS digital leaders programme, that presents the right conditions for digital transformation which is not the IT, but the vision, the workforce and organisational barriers.

This means for the future of digital technology usage within the NHS we need focused investment and understanding of what different areas need. Digital holds a lot of potential but should be anchored on solving a problem, rather than shiny and new solutions which may not satisfy system needs (something I’m looking forward to discussing with others at next year’s Rewired conference in March). Also, taking a local approach will enable more successful innovation; more local involvement and engagement helps inform understanding about what data exists and what it’s used for. These platforms present opportunities for modernising infrastructure, reducing risks of data breaches and putting stronger controls around data access. But it’s not enough on its own – the system still needs to be transparent and regularly engage with patients, the public and healthcare professionals and there are still many concerns about privacy, ethics, cost and private sector involvement.

What we have in our hands is a bright future ahead for the NHS and innovations in the digital sphere will help provide this exciting future, improving care for all up and down the country. We do however need to be thoughtful on how we can implement these innovations so they can be as effective as they can be to health leaders, their staff and the people they care for.

Digital Health Rewired is the sector’s most popular conference and networking event. Running 12-13 March at The NEC in Birmingham, the show is packed with insights and inspiration for anyone working across UK digital health. Free for NHS, public sector, non-for-profit and third sector providers, charitable sectors, academics and researchers. Private sector tickets from £475 +VAT.  Register here