Secondary Care

NHS digitalisation and the future role of NHS Digital; an interview with Sarah Wilkinson

HTN today attended a session, as part of the HETT Show, hosted by Charles Alessi, Chief Clinical Officer at HIMSS International who spoke with Sarah Wilkinson, CEO at NHS Digital.

The session discussed the current state of NHS digitalisation and the future role of NHS Digital in supporting new and evolving priorities and services.

Charles opened the questioning: “It’s clear the pandemic has changed quite a lot; how has it altered the plan (Long Term Plan) for digital transformation?”

Sarah: “I think it will change the plan, my personal opinion is that the ambition for digital transformation has been somewhat underwhelming, in the years running up to the pandemic, and that is not to denigrate the work that has been done in that period.

“Nationally within NHS Digital we have delivered an awful lot over that time, and in the Trusts as well. But I still think that, turning it around, the ambition has been less than it could have been and I don’t think the Long Term Plan offered a very exciting vision of a digital future.

“With Covid we have delivered so much, so quickly and so successfully; that we now know what is possible. In some ways that is the most exciting thing that comes out of this period, is that I think we can be confident, I think there has been too much timidity in recent years and a tendency of the system to look back at some of the problematic programmes that have happened in the past.

“I think what we need to do now is to look at the opportunities ahead. We have learnt that we can implement these big complex national systems, if you look at what we have done at NHS Digital; we built a testing infrastructure for Covid, deployed the shielded patient list, risk stratifications systems, 111 first, national data systems and services, deployed Teams to 1.3 million people; the point is these programmes were delivered in weeks and not months.

“We are starting to think about what we can take forward from this period. It’s important we use this work as a springboard for digital progress in the next few years, and in particular that we focus on service transformation, not just digitising existing services. We need to completely rethink how these clinical pathways might be designed and the opportunities for using digital and data are taken properly into consideration.

“There are massive opportunities ahead, and I do think we will see a re-imagination of that Long Term strategy for the system.”

Q: How do you think NHS Digital is going to support a really robust digital public health system and to help predict and prevent any future crisis’?

“Through data, more than anything else. There’s a big broad set of answers to this question but the most compelling opportunity is through data.

“We need a really broad, rich set of data on individuals that enables us to understand their health as well as their sickness, at the same time giving us clear view on population health trends.

“We are already working on a sophisticated longitudinal view of the patient through the continuing evolution of the NHS Digital data services platform. That will provide us with the magic product for clinical research, a single event based longitudinal record for each patient that records each interaction with the health system, largely with sickness related data.

“What we need to do is bring in much broader datasets and use those for more sophisticated analytics so we get much richer insights. We are working on and planning on bringing in more data about interactions with the health and care system and we are continually looking at how we can enhance that longitudinal record view.

“Increasingly we will see a lot more self-provided data, from the patient, and increasingly integration of data that is not traditional data, social economic to education data, all of that will need to be facilitated by much more fluid movement of data within the system, which is another huge agenda item.”