• Matt Hancock says new tech unit will have “open door policy” with industry
  • Says current digital leadership is too fragmented – for example, taking seven months to agree an NHS email policy
  • NHSX will be a joint-venture between DHSC and NHSE/I with its own CEO
  • To have broad oversight over tech spending, policy, and regulations

The health secretary’s new digital unit, NHSX, will have an “open door policy” with industry, and be tasked with working more closely with tech companies to improve NHS IT.

Speaking to HSJ on Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed NHSX will take over many of the digital responsibilities that currently sit with NHS England, including leadership of NHS digital strategy.

He said the move was needed because the NHS has been too slow on improving its IT systems, partly because responsibility was split across too many organisations.

“It took me seven months to get a statement out of all of the various parts of the system that it is okay to use email and that it should be used by default. That statement is already a decade later than the rest of the world,” he said.  

“Having one division of the department, that is also part of the NHS, that drives that agenda will bring that together.”

The announcement comes as the Department of Health and Social Care publishes its “code of conduct” for how the NHS should partner with digital health companies, including how it extracts value from giving industry access to NHS patient data.

Mr Hancock said NHSX would lead on creating an “unashamedly open” relationship with the health tech industry.

“NHSX will have an open door to allow discussion with health tech industry that is developing products to make sure that we are harnessing the best innovation to improve the NHS,” he said. 

“Part of its function will be to ensure that we build the best ecosystem for health tech development in the world.”

The model now agreed would make NHSX a joint-venture between NHS England/Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care. It would have its own chief executive.

The unit would have broad responsibility for overseeing hundreds of millions of pounds in central funding for digital technology, handle central IT contracts and set national policy for digital technology. Other responsibilities would include enforcing new minimum standards for NHS IT, including cybersecurity, and boosting digital skills. 

Senior responsible officers for digital projects, most of whom are currently employed by NHS England, would be moved into NHSX.  HSJ has been told this would include NHS chief information officer Will Smart, chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles, and interim chief digital officer Tara Donnelly.

A more radical proposal being considered – to have a standalone unit within DHSC with its own director general – appears to have been dropped and NHSX will instead second staff from other organisations, primarily NHS England and DHSC.

It will begin operating from April and take over these responsibilities fully by October.

Mr Hancock said there was no intention of placing NHSX on a statutory footing.

“Honestly I think recent history shows that putting the organisational design onto a statutory footing makes it harder to make improvements in the future rather than easier,” he said. 

Last month, HSJ revealed Mr Hancock was pushing for the creation of NHSX to give him more direct oversight of national digital strategy, which has been previously controlled by NHS England.

However, HSJ was also told the new unit had sparked concern among senior figures at NHS England about the impact of separating digital work from other core-NHS operational oversight.

On Tuesday, NHS England deputy chief executive Matthew Swindells, who currently has senior responsibility for NHS IT strategy, welcomed the creation of NHSX. 

“Bringing together the leadership around this exciting agenda in one place will help us deliver the far-reaching practical improvements from the long-term plan, improve the working lives of NHS staff and deliver better, safer care for patients,” he said.

NHS Digital will also now report directly to NHSX rather than NHS England and DHSC. 

Responding to the news, NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson said NHSX will create cohesion, and concentrate work and talent in one unit.

“The program of digital transformation ahead of us is extraordinary in terms of its scale, its complexity and the extent to which it can change lives,” she said. 

“It will require sophisticated strategic planning, strong leadership and very tight partnership between organisations across the system.”