What NHS tech and AI really need from the new government

  • 2 July 2024
What NHS tech and AI really need from the new government

The major parties see a big role for tech in easing pressure on the NHS and improving health care. What’s missing is a plan to make that happen, write Tim Horton and Malte Gerhold from the Health Foundation

With the NHS under major pressure from escalating demand and persistent workforce shortages, there are widespread hopes that technology and AI can come to the rescue. Effectively implemented and used, they offer huge potential for improving care quality and efficiency.

The major parties are all ambitious for technology to improve how health care is delivered and experienced by patients, and to free up clinicians’ time to care and increase productivity.

But what’s missing is any kind of plan for how the NHS will realise this potential in practice.

Here we look at five key priorities the next government must address if the NHS is to reap the benefits of technology and AI.

1. Give greater priority to technologies that help with admin and operational tasks

Cutting-edge clinical uses of technology often attract political attention and dominate the headlines (think robotic surgery or AI imaging), but non-clinical uses tend to have wide application across the NHS workforce, such as helping with note taking, communication or scheduling.  They also tend to lack the level of clinical risk that can delay the implementation of clinical technology.

NHS England has started to explore such non-clinical uses of technology, including through the Collaboration Charter with the Incubator for Artificial Intelligence. But it will need greater political backing (and commitment to invest) to maximise the potential of these opportunities.

2. Fund the change, not just the tech

There’s a lot in the main parties’ manifestos about new kit – replacing outdated computers, ageing radiotherapy machines, buying more scanners, and so on. But the NHS will need more than just new ‘kit’.  We’ll only get the benefits from new technology if it’s implemented and used well – and that requires good change management, training, improvement capability, support with evaluation, and better basic digital infrastructure.

How quickly and successfully any new government can implement its ambitions will be determined by the capability of local organisations to introduce service changes. Yes, some of these things require extra investment – difficult in such a tough financial climate. But even relatively modest amounts of implementation support can make a significant difference in realising the benefits of new technologies.

3. Get more out of existing technologies like electronic health records

It’s likely that many gains from technology over the next few years won’t come from new technologies at all, but from better use of existing technologies. Even when new technologies have been adopted, ongoing work is usually required to optimise their performance. In recent Health Foundation research, for example, clinical staff named EHRs as one of the technologies from which time savings are most likely over the next five years. But we also heard frustration that they are not yet being used to their full potential.

With the vast majority of trusts now having EHRs, attention will soon need to shift towards realising the longer-term potential of this technology, which can take several years.  A follow-up to the 2016  Wachter Review, focused on how now to get the most out of EHRs would be a good start.

4. Create a dedicated strategy for AI in health care

While there are important pockets of work on AI currently underway, progress in deploying AI in the NHS is hampered by the absence of an overarching strategy and agreed focus, and a lack of coordination across national-level agencies. The Health Foundation is calling for the new government to develop a dedicated strategy for AI in health care to put the NHS in a better position to harness it’s potential.

Among other things, it will need to prioritise supporting the demonstration, testing and spread of AI tools, creating a clear and consistent regulatory regime, and ensuring the health care workforce has the right skills and capabilities to capitalise on AI.

Such a strategy should also be developed under the principle of responsibility, ensuring the use of AI is not only legal and ethical but also works for the greater social good. We’ll be exploring these issues with international experts from across sectors at our free online event on 18th July.

5. Engage the public and NHS staff more in how technology is changing health care

Using technologies in ways that command the confidence of patients, the public and NHS staff will be critical for realising their benefits speedily. Poor user experience, ethical concerns or a lack of public support can all act as significant constraints on service transformation. While there have been some important national and regional engagement initiatives (such as those around the Federated Data Platform), Health Foundation research suggests further engagement with the public, patients and staff is needed to build confidence around technology and AI in health care, and address risks and concerns.

Technology has significant potential to help make the NHS more sustainable, support care staff, and improve patient experience. But unless the next government pays far more attention to how the health and care system can realise these benefits – particularly to how technologies can be successfully implemented and used within the NHS – the chances of technology and AI ‘saving the NHS’ will be slim.

Tim Horton, assistant director (insight and analysis) and Malte Gerhold, director of innovation and improvement, the Health Foundation

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