Report highlights room for improvement in digital NHS strategy

The creation of a digital NHS will depend on better communication between systems and stakeholders at a national and local level, and ramped up digital standards development.
By Piers Ford
09:01 AM

Closer dialogue between national and local bodies is essential if the national policy for NHS technology, digital and data is to achieve its priority of a digital NHS, according to a new report that explores the opportunities for digital transformation following the creation of NHSX.

The professionalisation of digital health roles, more co-ordinated leadership to drive the adoption of data sharing, and recognition that investment in achieving digital maturity requires a realistic long-term strategy are three of the key recommendations from the Nuffield Trust report, Achieving a Digital NHS: Lessons for national policy from the acute sector, which also focuses on the importance of digital standards and the benefits of more streamlined relationships with digital suppliers.

The report is based on feedback from 72 digital leaders in national organisations, NHS trusts and frontline roles. It concludes that while digitisation is making good progress across the NHS, the new focus on refining the organisational approach to national policy affords a number of important opportunities for NHSX and national bodies to take a more joined-up approach to digital transformation.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Many acute trusts feel that the recruitment and retention of a workforce to support and deliver digital change is a significant hindrance to transformation. The report’s authors, Sophie Castle-Clarke and Rachel Hutchings, suggest that this could be addressed by the professionalisation of digital health roles and the development of appropriate pay frameworks, as well as qualifications that would help to build distinct career pathways.

It also makes the case for legitimising the role of the Chief Clinical Information Officer – and for national bodies to provide best practice guidance on clinical informatics workforce configuration.

The report emphasises the effort still required to drive the value of data sharing and overcome the reluctance of some providers to engage in local data sharing efforts. Central bodies could help to ensure a better understanding of Information Governance legislation, engage more fully with patients and the public, while national and regional leadership could drive the development of trust-based analytics capacity – helping to reduce reliance on outsourced projects.

The report also advocates a more co-ordinated approach to investment in achieving digital maturity, based on a recognition that transformation will take a long time, and requires a joined-up strategy that includes the digitisation of middling and weaker trusts as well as Global Digital Examplars (GDEs).

WHAT'S THE TREND?

The report acknowledges the positive work that has been achieved on collaborative digital standards development but says the national strategy for implementation is often lacking. The impact of this across the areas covered by the report – configuring a digital workforce, working with digital suppliers, data sharing, funding and sustainability, and the role of the GDE and Fast Follower programme – requires a more strategic approach, and better communication between national policy and NHS providers.

“Too often, the implementation of standards is viewed as a technical rather than a technical adaptive exercise, and frequently falls to technical specialists within trusts,” the report found. “More needs to be done to communicate the purpose of digital standards beyond technical teams – particularly in highlighting the potential benefit they offer the organisation.”

ON THE RECORD

“Establishing clear avenues for two-way dialogue between all local organisations and central bodies is essential to ensure that national policy is in line with local priorities and effectively supports digital advancement, rather than serves as a hindrance or distraction,” concludes the report. “This may help central bodies strike the right balance between national direction and giving NHS organisations the space and time to lead their own change.”