“This pandemic was the time when healthtech really came of age. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, it helped us through this crisis ...Now is the time to bottle the spirit we’ve seen." Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care Secretary
Health secretary Matt Hancock has spoken about the impact of technology on health and care providers’ response to COVID-19 and its vital role in the coming months.
He also confirmed that a draft copy of the Data Strategy would be published shortly.
In a speech at Digital Health Rewired he outlined the scale of progress in health and care adopting technology during the pandemic.
The health and social care secretary said the last year had been a difficult time for everyone but using the best technology, and developing new technology quickly, had proved its worth.
“It has saved lives and keeps our health and care service standing at a time when it was under unbelievable strain like never before”.
He cited the example of how GP surgeries could keep operating remotely thanks to huge strides in telemedicine, with further development during the pandemic.
“And getting iPads into care homes to make sure people could stay in contact with their loved ones… We then built on that digital infrastructure to make sure the testing and then vaccination programmes have been able to operate in a seamless way.
“Ultimately the data is at the heart of both of those programmes. Testing is merely the discovery of new data.”
Mr Hancock announced further investment in the NHS to fix historic IT problems and “level up the field” to ensure that every part of the NHS is ready to benefit from the digital transformation seen during the pandemic.
He said the second wave of NHSX’s Digital Aspirant programme will build on current successes to help digitise hospitals needing additional support.
Seven trusts including East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust and Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital NHS Foundation Trust will receive up to £6million each over the next three years to help deliver their digital ambitions.
Meanwhile a further 25 trusts will receive seed funding of £250,000 to develop their digital strategy and business cases.
The Health Secretary said a priority was to digitise more of the NHS that is not yet digitised.
“The starring role that healthtech has played in our response was no accident. It comes off the back of the relentless investment in the fundamentals”.
NHSX launched the Digital Aspirant programme last year, with the aim of boosting the procurement, deployment and uptake of technologies.
The first wave of the programme helped 27 trusts to boost their digital infrastructure. In the second wave 30 more trusts will be becoming a Digital Aspirant, with more waves planned in future.
The health secretary highlighted the roll-out of 300,000 pulse oximeters to local health teams, enabling the NHS to set up virtual wards to care for thousands of people with COVID in their own homes.
Patients can update their data which is automatically sent directly to their clinical teams and reduces the need for daily check-in phone calls.
Evidence from patients and clinicians has so far shown improvements to patient care and faster intervention as a result of remote monitoring.
Mr Hancock said technology can improve patient experience and outcomes, by reducing waiting times, speeding up diagnosis and offering faster paths to treatment.
He cited the example of teledermatology and the new investment in image-sharing technology connecting GPs with specialist hospital-based dermatologists.
This has helped to reduce waiting times and speed up the diagnosis of some skin conditions and potential cancers.
Mr Hancock said he wanted the UK to be radical about reimagining how care is given.
“NHSX has published a procurement tool to allow images to flow from high-street opticians to ophthalmology clinics and we’re working to help primary care clinicians safely share images with specialist dermatologists in secondary care.
“Both of these projects have a broader meaning: they mean quicker and more accurate advice for patients, and they will reduce unnecessary trips to hospital.
“I want to see much more of this big thinking about how we can use technology to fundamentally transform care”.
Every year around 900,000 people see their GPs for skin concerns or disease, resulting in around three million hospital outpatient consultations.
With an additional £5million in investment, many GPs will be able to take images of skin conditions using equipment that attaches to a smartphone or tablet.
This can then be shared with specialist dermatologists to review, offer advice and a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.
The Health Secretary closed by highlighting that technology and ingenuity has helped us through the pandemic and said we must continue to use it as we face future challenges.
“This pandemic was the time when healthtech really came of age. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, it helped us through this crisis protecting our most vulnerable and bolstering our NHS.
“Now is the time to bottle the spirit we’ve seen – the ingenuity, the creativity and the adaptability – and put it in service of those solving the new challenges ahead”.
Matt Hackcock’s full speech is here