A plan for digital health and social care


The government has published a policy paper outlining its plan for digital health and social care and how it aims to achieve its goals. Introducing the plan in a speech at the Policy Exchange this week (June 29), Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid insisted: “This is not a choice. We must modernise and adapt or we will fall behind.” 

Digital transformation for the NHS is not a new ambition, however, it has been fraught with difficulty. Following consultations with decision-makers in the health and care sector, finance leaders and industry innovators, the government has identified three key barriers to successful adoption of the latest digital technology. These are a lack of cohesive guidance from the centre, difficulties in collaborating to find solutions that are adoptable across the system, and the need for better control over decisions on digital investment for organisations with a longer-term view of funding for strategic investment.

This policy paper addresses the first two of these barriers, with the ambition that by 2025 the local digital foundations needed to transform services are embedded across the whole health and care system and the entire system is equipped to deliver the benefits of digital transformation to all. 

The introduction of electronic patient records and further development and promotion of the NHS app figure strongly. However, this action plan for delivering a digital future for the NHS includes putting in place the core digital capabilities, which includes other critical systems as well as ensuring resilience to cyber attacks, fast connectivity for all health and social providers, and developing the necessary digital skills and leadership.

In part, this involves buying better technology that meets technical standards to deliver interoperability, usability, clinical safety, cyber security and sustainability. The plan promises to consolidate digital and IT procurement frameworks, to set and enforce clear technical standards, including open standards so there are no longer challenges in changing supplier. With all health and social care providers and their technical solution suppliers adopting the same standards, usable data will be able to flow between IT systems in different organisations and systems will be truly interoperable. 

The government will use regulatory levers to enforce standards towards achieving its digital aspirations for the NHS. Few formal mechanisms exist currently to oversee the delivery of digital priorities. However, the Health and Social Care Act 2022 strengthened the powers of government to enforce compliance with published standards by all health and social care providers. Suppliers are also expected to meet mandatory standards, and the forthcoming Data Reform Bill will strengthen this, introducing the power to apply technical standards to suppliers IT systems and services that are equivalent to those applied to health and social care providers. 

The policy plan defines a vision that: “implies a health and social care system underpinned by technical standards that enable all relevant health data to be accessible by those with a legitimate right to access it at the point of need, no matter where it is held.” To this end, specifying ‘must do’ standards will help industry partners to understand what they have to deliver and Integrated Care Systems to plan their digital investments. 

Read the full policy paper here.

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