Uday Bose shares his insights into the digital transformation of the NHS following a discussion he hosted at an HSJ event. He was joined by a diverse group of participants from NHSX, several CCGs, third sector and MPs with an interest in tackling the digital divide

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The potential of technology to transform health services and the NHS is undisputed, as the pandemic has certainly shown. However, when I met with other healthcare leaders for the HSJ Digital Transformation Virtual Series earlier this month, one thing soon became clear: critical to a reimagined NHS is patient-centricity and partnership.

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It is understandable that the recent accelerated move to digitisation has proceeded largely without patient consultation but now they must be central to its evolution.

At Boehringer Ingelheim (BI), our long-term collaborations with patient organisations ensure that our work is guided by patient-centric principles. Results from a new report presented at the meeting by The Patients Association found that patients want to be involved in the decisions being made and have more control over their care. Much was discussed around the potential to involve them in co-designing services which will ensure that solutions created for their benefit are meeting their needs – improving both effectiveness and efficiency at all levels.

Part of this is addressing one of their biggest concerns, to bring data and patients together. When we engage patients in transparent and quality conversations around how and why their data is being used, we improve their understanding and can provide them with the reassurance they need; this will in turn encourage patients to provide the moral authority and impetus to proceed.

And digital transformation will not be for all. Some 11.7 million people in the UK are estimated to be without basic digital skills and poor access to digital services is often associated with poorer health outcomes. People living in rural areas have less access to, and slower, internet infrastructure, while older people and people with lower incomes are less likely to own smartphones.

This means that giving patients plurality of choice and ensuring non-digital options are available is essential.

Some 11.7 million people in the UK are estimated to be without basic digital skills and poor access to digital services is often associated with poorer health outcomes

But that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to accelerate at pace and scale. We must integrate technology into the current system, so that capacity and resources can be freed up, and face to face time can be redeployed to focus on the most urgent, complex patients. Digital options can also be used as a supplementary support for patients in between appointments.

A great example of this came from one of our discussion participants Masood Ahmed, chief medical officer, NHS Black Country and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Groups who shared how his team are re-imagining the traditional healthcare model to a healthcare PLUS education model.

“Our driving ambition is to tackle healthcare inequalities and there are two ways in which we have started to think about that. The first is to address accessibility and the second is to re-purpose our local city estate. Local businesses are closing, and retail space is becoming available to be used for social good. So, we’re keen to provide kit, connectivity and knowledge in these new spaces. While patients come in to see their healthcare professional, why not combine that with enhancing their digital skills and showing them how to use NHS apps and relevant websites.”

One message came through loud and clear - excellent progress is being made at a community level and we should not wait for progress to be set by national policy. However, there is much that can be done at a national system level. We recently published An Innovator’s Guide to the NHS, which includes first hand feedback from a diverse range of contributors, about how policymakers can focus on building digital capacity. For example, building digital skills into core medical education programmes, encouraging early adopters of digital and creating a flexible culture that encourages lifelong learning.

There is no denying that the path towards a modern, sustainable NHS will have its challenges, but we have evolving clarity and the agency to deliver this through a patient and partnership focused approach. I am excited to see what can be achieved over the coming year.