New wave of 30 trusts to join Digital Aspirants programme, says UK health secretary

Secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock delivered a live video address yesterday at the Digital Health Rewired Digital Transformation Summit where he outlined future plans for reimagining and redesigning the NHS digital infrastructure, and how to harness data to deliver transformative results. During the speech, Hancock announced that 30 trusts will receive funding to boost their digital maturity and seven trusts will receive up to £6 million over three years to deliver their digital ambitions. News of establishing a basic shared record solution for every local system by September this year was also announced by the health secretary. 

Boosting the uptake of technology 

Hancock first announced the launch of the Digital Aspirants programme for hospitals in 2019, with the aim of boosting the procurement, deployment and uptake of technology.  The programme has since helped 27 trusts boost their digital infrastructure.

Providing context on the evolution of the programme, Hancock explained: “We must go forward to get the infrastructure in place and to make sure that we level up inequalities, and make sure that we reach all parts and bring with us those who have moved least far on the digital journey.

“Today, I’m delighted to announce we’re launching our next wave. Thirty more trusts will be starting their journey and becoming a digital aspirant. Seven trusts will get up to £6 million over the next three years,” announced Hancock. “The rest will get seed funding to start creating their plans. We’ll be offering further waves of funding in the years ahead.

“To do this we’ll focus on all parts of the NHS,” added Hancock. “It’s very important that this is right across the NHS and social care, including mental health and community trusts, which can feel the benefits of digital transformation just as much as acute trusts.”

Sonia Patel, chief information officer at NHSX, said: “Our ambition is to level-up NHS trusts to ensure they have the critical digital foundations to operate in a modern NHS.

“Today marks the second of what will be many waves of Digital Aspirants and I would encourage those not receiving funding today to work on their plans so they can join a future wave of the programme.”

The seven trusts receiving up to £6 million are:

  • University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust
  • Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust
  • East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust
  • West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust

The full list of NHS trusts receiving funding can be seen here. 

Changing the handling of data 

Hancock also touched on the need to connect the system to enable data to flow appropriately and freely and to get the “intrinsic benefits” that high-quality data and interoperability can provide.

He conceded that bringing data together that previously existed in silos was fundamental to the COVID response, adding: “It helped us to identify those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus and ask them to shield, bringing together data from across government to understand (…) who needed most support during the lockdowns.”

Hancock also highlighted the importance of using technology to transform how care is given rather than digitising pathways from an analogue age. “Anybody who’s been involved in any digital transformation in history will say that what matters is not just the digital transformation, it’s transforming the underlying business to take advantage of the opportunities from digital transformation.

“We must apply this to the core of the NHS too. Digital technologies are not a bolt-on or a nice to have, they must be a transforming force that can help us fundamentally improve by reshaping health and care as we know it.”

In the UK, live patient data is currently held by companies who provide electronic patient record systems. “But it isn’t their data,” noted Hancock “and although it isn’t their data, too often these systems act as a barrier to accessing it. This means that data might not be accessible and can’t be properly shared, providing a barrier to the research and the innovation that we know has so much potential.

“We need to make it easier to write applications or create services that interact with data from different NHS organisations. I want to explore whether we can remove this barrier to innovation and separate the data layer from the application layer so providers can offer the application software, but the data will be stored separately and securely in the cloud.”

Admitting that this was a “big change,” Hancock added that it was key in having a “consistent data platform across the NHS.”

Adrian Byrne, CIO at University Hospital Southampton NHS FT (UHS) told Healthcare IT News: “CIOs have been discussing the development of a more open data approach to clinical records systems for some time. It is a hot topic. The concept of the vale of data and its ability to persist beyond the life of an application is a paradigm that is gaining favour among many. It is a difficult challenge and will not be solved quickly. However, there are ways of working in specific use cases and I think if success can be proven then it will add confidence.

“There are many benefits to working this way, not least in the area of data migration which is always a huge challenge should one decide to change vendor or platform. This alone can cause a health organisation to be locked into a relationship that might not be providing the optimal solution. The value of open data for research is now starting to be realised as well of course. I like to think of it in a similar way to the way imaging systems use a vendor-neutral archive, and in fact if you look at the UHS patient online programme with My Medical Record and the Open PHR that is exactly what we are doing – one record, many apps. It has to be the future.”

Simplifying information guidance 

In order to put patients in control of the data, the NHS plans to launch a basic shared solution for local systems by September. This will mean that patients will only need to give their details once for it to be held in a local record that can be seen safely by clinicians, consequently avoiding repeated questions and duplicated tests.

During the pandemic, data guidance for frontline clinicians was simplified and written on a single page, to improve clarity and understanding: “This simple guidance had an electrifying effect on the system, letting clinicians share data with confidence.”

Hancock explained that this in turn enabled the NHS to, “focus on what we needed to focus on, which is data security, and proper use of data, rather than the intervening technology.”

Discussing how the pandemic has transformed traditional models of healthcare, Hancock said: “This pandemic was a time when health tech really came of age and thanks to the hard work of so many people, including so many of you.

“It helped us through the crisis, protecting our most vulnerable, bolstering the NHS. Now is the time to bottle the spirit. We’ve seen the ingenuity, the creativity, the adaptability, and put it in the service of those solving the new challenges ahead,” concluded Hancock.

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