The new health secretary’s belief that technology will act as a panacea to the NHS’s numerous problems is worrying, says Andy Cowper

In his interview with The Guardian ahead of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week, Matt “The App” Hancock promised to “go round the world looking for the best technology that can save lives and improve the lives of clinicians too. We need to be embracing it”.


Not to mention “oh dear”.

Mr Hancock is ahead of the curve for the Conservative Party on dodgy app privacy issueshis own was found to be actively prospecting for users’ data. Clearly, Matt “The App” is an early adopter with verve and elan.

At the risk of stating the screamingly obvious, much of NHS IT is in an unfit for purpose state, and needs to improve significantly. That improvement is going to cost the NHS the two things of which it is currently significantly short.

The first of these is the clinical workforce’s time, to design new IT systems well, intuitively and around the real workflow (rather than the imaginary one).

The second of these is money. The provider sector is on course for a half a billion pound overspend. Trusts in special measures are paying 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rates to Department of Health and Social Care on loans that are keeping the staff paid and the lights on.

But the answer is a world tour for technology, apparently. Oh dear. At moments such as this, “The Thick Of It” is starting to feel more like a documentary than a comedy.

Tech-tonic plates

Mr Hancock’s belief that technology offers some sort of short cut or panacea is starting to assume worrying proportions. The interface between the tech-tonic plates of his imagination of the problem could have seismic effects on a system struggling to stay upright and heading into a winter with no more staff and no more money.

The combination of dear old Lord Lansley’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act and NHS Commissioning Board boss Simon Stevens deciding that if no one was in charge, he would be (which I was the first to point out back in 2015) means that each new Health But Social Care Secretary must now reimagine the job in their own image (as Jeremy Hunt did on patient safety).

What the system needs from whoever is made Secretary Of State For The Time Being is that they should make the right calls about the really big problems facing the NHS. Mr Hancock is being well advised by someone, and elsewhere in the Guardian interview mentions culture, bullying, prevention and workforce.

The best technology on the planet is not going to help greatly with these areas. At a time when the growing risk of a disorderly or no deal Brexit threatens the UK’s medical research and development advantages (not to mention its status as a reference pricing market for the global pharmaceutical industry), Mr Hancock’s promise of swanning about the globe in business class to look at exemplar technology for the NHS feels dangerously like displacement activity.

Once Brexit’s negative impact on the clinical workforce is starting to really hurt naturally Tory areas such as Oxfordshire, Mr Hancock may want to reorder his priorities a little.

Or even a lot.