The Digital Health Revolution | Can digital health save the NHS?

In the last blog, I shared some reflections about spending some time with community clinicians and my concerns that that digital health movement had not infiltrated their daily practice. This led me to take a step back and define the meaning of digital health and share some leading examples in the hope to intrigue and inspire. In part two, I will start by taking a look at the problems we currently face in the NHS. Yes, a bit doom and gloom, but I feel that this helps to put into context the critical need for digital health. I will then share the governance and initiatives we have to make digital changes to service provision.

Part two – Can digital health save the NHS?

Most clinicians are well versed that the national healthcare industry as we know it, is facing radical changes. We know we need to brace ourselves for a taxing set of challenges; the biggest in our professional careers; the most demanding in the history of the NHS.

What are some of the problems plaguing the NHS?

Demand and capacity - The NHS deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours. Do we have the workforce capacity to meet the health needs of the public?

Funding and savings – The NHS has a financial burden of a sustained period of next-to-no growth to funding coupled with further cost saving targets. Can the NHS make £22bn of ‘efficiency savings’ by 2020 without a considerable injection of funds to innovate?

Population health trends –We have an aging population and an increase in the number of people living with more than one chronic condition. Do we have the skills and tools to best work with these people to meet their health needs?

Business threats – Privatisation and competitive commissioning challenges are rife. How do we maintain our business if we cannot demonstrate providing cost efficient, high quality and innovative clinical practices?

Consumer needs – Digital solutions have empowered the quantified self-movement. How do we engage our clients with these new technologies to access services, communicate with healthcare professionals and to better self-manage?

One cannot under estimate the complex climate that we currently practice in. Yet, somehow we must find the passion, funds and resource to re-design and revolutionise our national healthcare services to survive.

Can digital health save the NHS?

Digital technologies are changing the world and our expectations of how we engage with services from all industries. The internet, mobile and app developments have changed the way we behave as consumers and global companies such as Amazon, Uber, Airbnb are leading the way with digital first business models. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry has experienced a much slower uptake compared to other spaces. Why is this so? Perhaps, a consequence of the lack of timely financial investment, digital leadership and dedicated transformational resource. In addition, clinicians are typically a risk adverse group of professionals and are governed strongly by the need of evidence, security and safety. These factors have made it difficult to adopt new ways of working at pace with the rest of the advancing digital world.

At many health tech’ events, I have found that speakers attempt to illicit a laugh out of the audience when poking fun at the NHS for its disastrously slow uptake of digital solutions. This infuriates me, as it is not a laughing matter anymore and is echoed by one of my favourite quotes from Beverley Bryant (Director of Digital Transformation at NHS Digital):

“It’s not alright for patients to be walking into health organisations that feel like the 1980s.”

In a pod cast aired in January 2016 by The Guardian, Alex Hern talks to Beverley Bryant about the state of the NHS’s digital health. To listen to the discussion click here.

Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) is so serious about digital health, they even changed their name to NHS Digital in April this year (see announcement here).

There are new priorities for developing the role of technology in health and social care. We will see the governance come from four key bodies:

  • NHS England - Technology Strategy Department
  • National Information Board - Informatics Delivery Programme
  • NHS Digital
  • National Institute for Health Research - Health Technology Assessment Programme


The NHS was initially subjected to a digital objective from the Secretary of State to ‘go paperless’ by 2020, which was set out in the NHS Five Year Forward View. However, the recent Watcher Review ‘Making IT Work’ for care in England, has questioned this and suggested a more realistic target of 2023.  

The NHS seems to finally have a real awakening to digital health. So much so, that there is a wealth of new plans, directions and programmes, which can be a bit difficult to grasp how it will all come together. I found a good overview in The King’s Fund report ‘A digital NHS’ published in September 2016. This report looks at the key commitments and provides an update about progress to date.  It talks through the barriers to progress and opportunities for delivering on the digital agenda.

In the Spending Review, the Government confirmed £1 bn investment in health technologies by 2020, but how will we see this filter down to the organisations that need it is most? 


Will we see it fund… digitising patient record systems across the country?

Will we see it fund… the new commitments to improving the use of technology that have been outlined in the NHS England Business Plan 2016/17?

Will we see it fund… the solutions outlined in the Accelerated Access Review that aim to improve the adoption of transformative technologies and medical devices?

Will we see it fund… more NHS Innovation Test Beds that aim to improve patient care by ensuring innovators, clinicians and patients can collaborate on solutions and test them together?

Will we see it fund… the development of national interoperability standards to ensure data sharing between clinical systems for better care as advocated by INTEROPen?

Will we see it fund… better awareness campaigns to ensure the public can make informed choices about how their health data is used outlined in the Caldicott Review?

So, will digital health save the NHS? It’s a question that has some urgency. There is no doubt we have a lot of work to do, but I am feeling more positive seeing these initiatives and commitments aimed at harnessing the digital revolution. Embracing new digital ways of working will take scientific discipline, patience, passion and some consideration in local performance activity to give clinical staff the time and space to innovate their daily practice. If we are to deal with our challenges head on and survive as a ‘free at the point of care’ national service, I believe that the intelligent use of digital health will play a critical role.

Next time, in the final blog of the series, I will revisit my initial question; How do we do a better job at ensuring all of our clinical colleagues are a part of the digital health journey? I will share top tips to help you and your services get with the digital health programme. 

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