• Delays to digital maturity index update and funding allocations prompt concerns
  • New digital assessment could include “peer review” element
  • Funding uncertainty is stalling local projects, senior sources tell HSJ

Delays to the updating of NHS England’s flagship digital maturity benchmark, uncertainty about funding and stalling local projects has prompted fresh concerns about the NHS’s technology agenda.

Senior figures told HSJ this week they had been expecting the digital maturity index, first published in March last year, to be updated on an annual basis to measure trusts’ progress towards being paperless by 2020 on an annual basis.

The index, based on self-assessment by trusts, was first announced in 2015. It was envisaged that a trust’s digital maturity score would, along with local digital roadmaps, form the criteria for how much central funding they received.

However, HSJ understands that, as of 8 June, trusts have not yet been asked to repeat the digital maturity assessment. Several senior NHS IT sources said drafts of a revised digital self-assessment questionnaire had circulated early this year but there had been no communication from NHS England on the subject for months.

The drafts placed more emphasis on tangible measures of maturity that last year’s assessment, the sources told HSJ. NHS England was also understood to be considering adding a “peer review” element to the assessment, in response to concerns about the robustness of data based purely on a self-assessment.

The next round of trust based assessment would also likely work in combination with “place based” digital maturity assessment that are currently being tested, HSJ has been told.

NHS England said the index would be repeated this year, but would not provide further details about timing or changes.

The delays comes amid growing concerns about the pace of digitalisation in NHS, which was meant to accelerate after the announcement of additional £1.3bn in technology funding in February last year. This boost was designed to support creating a paperless NHS at the point of care by 2020.

However, none of this money has been distributed to trusts, and concerns persist that funding could be cut. HSJ has been told that without a pick-up in funding, there had been no acceleration of digital projects at a local level in the past year and some projects had stalled, awaiting central support.

“[NHS England] has set the pace but it hasn’t given us any money,” one source said.

So far, the only tech fund money NHS England has announced is up to £195m for its flagship “global digital exemplar” programme, based on Professor Robert Watcher’s review of NHS IT.

The 23 exemplar acute and mental health trusts will theoretically receive central funding, £10m for acute trusts and £5m for mental health, to be matched locally. This money would be used to digitally improve further and create “blueprints” for digitalisation of other, less advanced, trusts.

However, none of these trusts have received central digital funding, despite some expecting the first tranche last November.

In April, the Treasury approved some of this funding and exemplar trusts have been told to expect distribution in the first half of 2017-18.