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NHS England publishes digital priorities for 2022/23

NHS England has published its digital priorities for the next 12 months, as part of a wider release on operational planning guidance across a number of areas.

Entitled ‘2022/23 priorities and operational planning guidance’, the 40-page document was released on 24 December 2021 and sets out NHS objectives for the next year. These span a wide range of topics, including digital, and are based on ‘a scenario where COVID-19 returns to a low level’, allowing health and social care services to ‘make significant progress’ as it continues to ‘rise to the challenge of restoring services and reducing the COVID backlogs’.

In the introduction, Amanda Pritchard, the NHS Chief Executive, thanks staff for their ‘extraordinary efforts’ and underlines that the ‘ability to fully realise the objectives set out in this document is linked to the ongoing level of healthcare demand from COVID-19’, allowing that the ‘immediate priorities and anticipated pressures’ mean teams are not expected to ‘engage with specific planning asks now’. As a result, it’s noted that the planning timetable will be ‘extended to the end of April 2022’ and kept under review.

Much of the focus is on increasing the number of patients diagnosed and treated, as well as on ‘accelerating partnership working through integrated care systems (ICSs) to make the most effective use of the resources available’, and ‘reducing inequalities in access’.

The overarching main aims are described as: accelerating plans to ‘grow the substantive workforce and work differently’; use pandemic learnings to ‘rapidly and consistently adopt new models of care’ that ‘exploit the full potential of digital technologies’; to work in partnership to make the ‘most effective use of the resources available’ and ‘get above pre-pandemic levels of productivity as the context allows’; and use the ‘additional funding government has made available’ to increase capacity and invest in buildings and equipment.

Elaborating further on the digital point, the authors outline the plan to use digital technologies to ‘transform the delivery of care and patient outcomes – achieving a core level of digitisation in every service across systems’, as well as the need for ‘improved data collection and reporting’ to ‘drive a better understanding of local health inequalities’ by ‘informing the development of action plans to narrow the health inequalities gap’.

Within the objective to ‘improve the responsiveness of urgent and emergency care and build community care capacity’, national funding to further develop virtual wards is noted as a key area and is also featured in the section on transforming services to include more care at home.

‘The NHS has already had considerable success in implementing virtual wards, including Hospital at Home services’, the report states, highlighting the 53 existing virtual wards, which it says provide over 2,500 beds nationwide. However, the document authors also add that, the ‘scope for virtual wards is far greater’ and calls for ‘full implementation as rapidly as possible’ to help ease the pressures on acute beds.

The intention is to achieve this by developing plans across systems and providers to use the tech to enable ‘earlier supported discharge’ and ‘alternatives to admission’, with a target for systems to complete the development of virtual wards to meet a ‘national ambition of 40–50 virtual wards per 100,000 population’ by December 2023. It’s expected that this will include the use of remote monitoring technologies and wider digital platforms to help with delivery. Up to £200 million will be available in 2022/23 and up to £250 million in 2023/24 to support these plans, subject to progress.

Other related aims are to utilise digital technologies to ‘ensure providers of community health services, including ICS-commissioned independent providers, can access the Local Care Shared Record as a priority in 2022/23’ and to ‘deliver radical improvements in quality and availability against national data requirements and clinical standards, including the priority areas of urgent care response and musculoskeletal (MSK).’

In the dedicated section on using digital to ‘transform the delivery of care and patient outcomes’, there is a focus on ‘levelling up’ digital maturity to ensure a ‘core level of infrastructure, digitisation and skills’ in every system and service. Acute, community, mental health and ambulance providers are specifically required to ‘meet a core level of digitisation by March 2025, in line with the NHS Long Term Plan commitment’, while costed three-year digital investment plans are expected to be ‘finalised by June 2022 in line with What Good Looks Like (WGLL)’.

Furthermore, systems will be funded to ‘establish dedicated teams’ to support development and delivery of plans which should include ‘provisions for robust cyber security across the system’, support the NHS Net Zero Agenda and local steps towards digital inclusion, as well as ‘reflect ambitions to consolidate purchasing and deployment of digital capabilities’ at a system-wide level ‘where possible’.

In terms of funding to support the digitisation of acute, mental health, ambulance and community services, the publication states that ‘£250 million will initially be allocated to systems for 2022/23 while they develop their digital investment plans’ – capital which will be ‘directed towards those services and settings that are the least digitally mature’.

Other upcoming digital targets include:

  • All systems within a Shared Care Record collaborative to be able to exchange information across the whole collaborative by March 2023, with a a ‘view to national exchange’ by March 2024.
  • For local authorities with social service responsibilities to be connected to their local Shared Care Record solution by March 2023, and for all social care providers to be able to connect within six months of having an operational digital social care record system.
  • For suppliers to comply with interoperability standards, as these are finalised.
  • For general practice to promote the NHS App and NHS.UK to ‘reach 60 per cent adult registration by March 2023’.
  • Develop plans to up-skill the workforce ‘to maximise the opportunities of digital solutions’.
  • For the NHS e-Referral Service (e-RS) to become an ‘any-to-any health sector triage, referral and booking system’ by 2025.

Read the guidance in full online through NHS England and find the digital-centric section from page 32.