• NHS CCIO Simon Eccles said NHS’ attitude to technology is “wrong”
  • Says other industries have made “phenomenal leaps” towards digitisation, while NHS is lagging far behind 
  • Adds change of NHS mindset towards tech will make staff recruitment and retention “much easier”

The NHS is living “in the dark ages” when it comes to technology, while outpatient services “would still be recognised” by Victorian doctors, according to health tech leaders.

Speaking at the NHS Expo conference in Manchester on Wednesday, national chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles said other industries, such as agriculture and shipping, have made “phenomenal leaps” towards digitisation.

However, the NHS’ mindset towards tech needs to change, as staff are just “accepting” 30-minute logins to “deeply outated” computer systems.

Dr Eccles said: “Every other industry has made phenomenal leaps through standardisation and digitisation.

“The biggest changes have been agriculture and in shipping – just stick with me for a second – where there has been a 100-fold reduction in people needed to carry out the same task.

“As of five years ago, there were only two industries that have not improved as a consequence of digitisation and standardisation and they are construction and healthcare, and construction [has] now done it.”

He added more money needs to be invested into technology across NHS organisations to bring them up to speed with other industries.

“We have got our attitude to tech wrong. We are spending less than 2 per cent in many of our organisations on our full digital infrastructure and technology as a digital industry in which any other similar size industry will be spending 4 to 5 per cent.

“If we change our attitude to tech we will find recruitment and retention of our staff easier. We will find people are able to do their jobs infinitely better as we have automated, routine, boring tasks. 

“This is a wholesale mindset change that we have got to get to.”

Surprised by Monday

The CCIO also raised concerns that technologies used in retail over the past 20 years to predict demand on services and workforce needs are only just being introduced to the NHS.

He said: “There are some technologies which are quite clearly ready. We have got some brilliant stuff around natural language processing, around demand, prediction which is 20 years old in retail.

“Tesco has spent 20 years finding out what their staffing levels need to be for Christmas, for Sunday afternoons. The NHS is surprised by Monday on a weekly basis. We are in the dark ages here.”

National clinical director for innovation at NHS England Tony Young highlighted the need for technological advances in outpatient appointments, which he believes have not changed significantly since the Victorian era.

He said the technology exists for him to carry out the majority of his role as a practising surgeon remotely, but it is yet to be implemented.

The Joseph Lister era

Professor Young told the conference: “There’s lots of exciting things and lots of great promise but you never really know when it is going to crystallise to a point.

“A month or so ago, we put an application in to NHS England and we became one of the outpatient transformation exemplars and we are launching our programme called virtual polyclinics. So actually the technology now exists for us to do virtually everything I do, other than physically operate on someone, remotely but we just haven’t brought all that together…

“Have outpatients change since Victorian times? I think a Victorian doctor, I think Joseph Lister would recognise outpatients. It needs to change and I think we can do it in the NHS.”

Binita Kane, a consultant at Manchester University Foundation Trust, went on to warn of the “disconnect” between junior doctors and conversations among tech leaders within the NHS system.

She said the knowledge of “innovative” junior doctors needs to be harnessed as they gain more insight into technological needs while working across different hospitals.

Dr Kane said: “Junior doctors are our future leaders, they are the backbone of the NHS, they are our eyes and ears and they get experience from lots of different places.

“There is always this disconnect between conversations at this level and junior doctors grappling with their IT problems in hospitals.

“They always get really cross with Matt Hancock talking about AI because their computer on the ward doesn’t work. We have to bridge that gap somehow.”


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The HSJ Digital Transformation Summit, taking place at the Crowne Plaza, Stratford-upon-Avon from 12-13 February 2020, unites 120+ senior leaders from across the provider, commissioning and STP landscape with those who have leveraged technology to drive tangible improvements across other industries, to discuss how to realise your digital visions in a cash-limited environment and scale up innovations to improve quality and outcomes for your local population.

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