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Digital Health and Social Care plan lays out tech-driven future for the NHS

DHSC announces its Digital Health and Social Care plan to save taxpayers billions and encourage more private investment.

By Sophia Waterfield

The UK government has announced its vision to transform the country’s health and social care using digital technology, which boasts of giving patients quicker and effective access to services.

On June 29, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) published its plans for its “rapid expansion of the use of technology”, which it says is “fit for the 21st century.” The plan sets out how the government plans to improve access to information for people and their care teams through the NHS App and NHS website. This includes bringing information together into the app and enabling people to view and manage hospital appointments, have virtual consultations, and see notifications from their GP, the department says.

Digital health and social care plan: Close up of a senior man consulting with a doctor on his phone
Half a million patients will be remote-monitored by March 2023, says the DHSC as part of its Digital Health and Social Care Plan. (Photo by vorDa/iStock)

Referencing the Covid-19 backlogs, the government says it will also use digital technologies across the NHS and social care to “improve efficiency and free up frontline workers’ time”. To do this, DHSC says that it will increase the availability of remote monitoring to support a further half a million people by March 2023, on top of the 280,000 people already using it at home or in care homes. This will free up hospital beds and “save clinicians valuable time” and DHSC has said that improvements in patient outcomes have been seen.

The government has earmarked £2bn from the spending review to help with the digital transformation of the NHS and social care sector, the DHSC says. It also plans to release billions back into the NHS by rolling out the electronic patient records.

What is the Digital Health and Social Care plan?

DHSC has created its Digital Health and Social Care plan to bring “digital reforms” to the NHS and social care industry. It says that it wants to deliver benefits over the next decade that could “save billions in taxpayers’ money, while also promoting economic growth and private investment”.

As part of its plans, it will look to update the NHS App with new features to offer a more “personalised” care from home. This will give patients access to their records and enable notifications directly from their GP.

“We are embarking on a radical programme of modernisation that will make sure the NHS is set up to meet the challenges of 2048 – not 1948, when it was first established,” health secretary Sajid Javid said. The plan builds on the government’s data strategy to revolutionise digital health and care, and is designed to help “bust the Covid-19 backlog,” Javid added.

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He further says that patients will be able to complete hospital pre-assessment checks from home by September 2024.

Speaking on the announcement, Dr Timothy Ferris, national director of transformation at NHS England and NHS Improvement, the body that oversees NHS trusts, said that the plan sets out an “ambitious vision” for a future where the NHS puts more power and information at patients’ fingertips, and that staff will have the tools they need to deliver better and more joined-up services for those who need them.

“More than 28 million people now have the NHS App in their pocket,” he says. “To support patients to access more personalised care from home, new features will be added to the NHS App, enabling it to become a digital front door to NHS services.”

Digital health and social care records are coming

DHSC is also using the Digital Health and Social Care plan to promote the use of shared digital records to create seamless information sharing between care teams. This type of data-sharing could include access to GP records for people working in care homes.

The adoption of digital social care records and other care technologies is being backed by £25m this year, announced at London Tech Week.

This seamless data-sharing is welcomed by stakeholders across the country. Speaking in support of the announcement, Sarah Sweeney, head of policy at National Voices, a coalition of health and social care charities in England, said that she welcomed the use of technology as an enabler for joined-up personalised care and that the UK hadn’t realised the full power of digital tools to help achieve “person-centred, inclusive and accessible care for people”.

Is private tech investment really best for NHS patients?

Increased reliance on technology is likely to mean the NHS working more closely with the private sector. Tech Monitor has recently reported on the growing role US big data firm Palantir is playing in UK healthcare, and the company has reportedly been recruiting NHS executives to help secure a £360m contract to deliver a data-sharing platform. Tech companies have also been invited to make bids to provide technology for doctors as part of a new £9.5m procurement framework announced earlier this month.

While private companies can bring additional skills and resources to NHS projects, a report published today by the health journal, The Lancet Public Health, says that increased use of for-profit companies in the health service could be adversely affecting care.

Published in the July 2022 issue of the journal, the authors analysed for-profit provider contracts with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and how these have changed since the introduction of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which made it easier for private providers to win NHS contracts. It found that those contracts increased from less than 4% of total procurement expenditure to more than 6%, which resulted in a subsequent 0.38% annual increase in treatable mortality. The biggest growth in funding was for business support and IT.

They analysed parsable procurement contracts from 173 CCGs in England and supplemented them with rates of local mortality from causes that “should be treatable by medical intervention” to indicate the quality of healthcare services. The results showed that an annual increase of 1 percentage point in outsourcing to the private for-profit sector corresponded with an annual increase in treatable mortality of 0.38%. This could equate to up to 600 excess deaths.

“Our study suggests that increased for-profit outsourcing from CCGs in England might have adversely affected the quality of care delivered to patients and resulted in increased mortality rates,” according to authors Benjamin Goodair and Aaron Reeves from The University of Oxford.

The authors say that even though there are mixed messages about the benefits of a mixed public and private provision system, they advise caution in changing the mix any further, and say private companies may use technology as a way to increase profits at the expense of patient safety.

"For-profit providers might secure greater profit for their shareholders by being innovative and quick to adopt the latest technologies," Goodair and Reeves add. "But a faster route to making profits might mean compromising on healthcare quality." 

Read more: NHS trusts advised to cut ties with Sensyne Health

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