The NHS is to push ahead with plans to digitise the organisation after health secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined plans to establish a new academy to train NHS staff in digital skills alongside 12 new ‘global exemplars' to spread digital best practice.
The announcement comes in response to the publication of a long-awaited report by clinician and digital expert professor Bob Wachter entitled Making IT work: harnessing the power of health information technology to improve care in England.
"In order for the NHS to continue to provide a high level of healthcare at an affordable cost, it simply must modernise and transform. This transformation will involve enormous changes in culture, structure, governance, workforce and training," said the report.
"But none of the changes is likely to be as sweeping, as important, or as challenging as creating a fully digitised NHS."
The report noted that the failed National Programme for IT (NPfIT) has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the use of IT in the NHS, but that this should not hinder progress.
"While it is true that NPfIT erred partly through over-centralisation, it is also important to note that centralisation sometimes makes sense, particularly in the context of a national health system," the report said.
"A new digital strategy should seek an appropriate balance between local/regional control and engagement versus centralisation."
The report recommended that data sharing should become core to a future digital NHS, rather than letting privacy fears stop this happening.
"Privacy is very important, but it is easy for privacy and confidentiality concerns to hinder data sharing that is desirable for patient care and research. It would be a mistake to lock down everyone’s healthcare data in the name of privacy," said Wachter.
"We endorse the recommendations of the National Data Guardian’s Review of Data Security, Consent and Opt-Outs, which was commissioned to achieve this balance."
Hunt has now announced that the 12 exemplars will receive funding of up to £10m and will be expected to deliver pioneering approaches to digital services, while helping others in the NHS learn from their experiences.
In addition to investment in technology and infrastructure, the funding will be used to improve training for staff and to encourage a new generation of chief clinical information officers to champion and drive advances in digital technology.
Further funding will be available for another 20 trusts to become national exemplars, receiving an intensive programme of support from the new NHS digital academy and up to £5m each to improve how digital technology is used across their organisation.
"Bob Wachter's excellent review made it clear that digitisation is as much about people as it is technology, and that this is a real opportunity to improve patient care for the long term," said Hunt.
"We want to fast track existing digital excellence, as well as nurture new skills and expertise that we will need to deliver a new breed of digitised services.
"This means on the one hand giving pioneering NHS organisations the financial backing to unleash their full potential, while also making sure that we can build a digitally confident workforce across the whole NHS."
Digital plans include the ability to register with a GP, access healthcare records and get medical advice via a PC, tablet or smartphone, all in one place, which the Department of Health claimed will be possible from next year.
Other digital plans include the development of NHS-approved health apps to guide patient choice. NHS England will launch a library of NHS-assessed apps and advise on the use of wearable health devices.
The NHS Choices website will be relaunched as NHS.UK with a wider range of online patient services. Hunt also promised "instant access" to personal health records online inspired by the ‘blue button' app in the US.
Finally, Hunt promised more online information about the performance of health services, including how various NHS trusts, hospitals and services fare in terms of dementia, diabetes and learning disability services.
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