Investing in NHS tech must prioritise effective training and address wider productivity challenges to avoid repeating past mistakes and ensure sustainable improvement, writes Karina Malhotra 

Jeremy Hunt’s Budget last month – expected to be the last major fiscal event before the general election – included more about health than expected, with a big focus on investment to improve productivity in the NHS.

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While the £3.4bn set aside for modernising IT systems and digital transformation is welcomed, it is not enough on its own to get productivity back to pre-pandemic levels. Even with this funding boost, the devil (as always) is in the detail – the £3.4bn will be spread across three years and won’t arrive until 2024-25 when the current government is predicted to no longer be in power.

The idea behind improving antiquated IT systems, and increasing patients’ access to care through greater use of the NHS app and other digital innovations is a sound one, but we must be clear there are challenges in place that need to be resolved to ensure the money achieves its goal of improving the NHS in the long-term.

Investing in tech, but what about those using it?

The NHS still relies heavily on people to function effectively. You could have the most fantastic, ground-breaking tech in the world, but that’s of little use if the people on the ground don’t know how to implement it or aren’t supported or trained to do so.

This has been the reality in the past. When I was a senior leader in the NHS, I saw new tech introduced that wasn’t implemented correctly. There wasn’t staff buy-in. There weren’t training programmes to help staff get to grips with the tech that was supposed to save them time.

Tech on its own doesn’t solve the NHS’s productivity problem. Tech that people know how to use – through effective, accessible learning and development – and tech that is implemented well can make a real difference. Astonishingly, though, managers in the NHS who generally lead these projects don’t currently get the digital transformation training that they need to implement new tech successfully. This is surely a massive flaw in any plan to boost productivity.

There is certainly a desire from staff for more training. In the NHS Staff Survey 2023, 45 per cent of staff said the opportunities aren’t there for them to develop their career in their organisation, while 40 per cent said they are unable to access the right learning and development opportunities when they need to. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there is a stark downward trend in motivation whilst (at the same time) a rising trend in staff turnover. The costs of these fundamental problems impacting overall staff wellbeing is estimated to be in the region of £12bn.

Tech shouldn’t be viewed as a magic cure-all or a direct replacement, but as an asset to staff to make their lives easier. It also needs to be implemented for a purpose, with an intended outcome that is measured and tracked

Tackling wider productivity challenges

In addition to getting the tech, training, and implementation right, there are other factors to consider, too.

Other elements that are likely to have a big bearing on productivity include staff wellbeing, motivation, health and pay. After all, if you don’t have a happy, healthy and motivated workforce, any attempts to improve output are likely to fail. What’s more, a happy, healthy and motivated workforce is far more likely to fully embrace digital transformation, rather than seeing it as a time-consuming distraction.

Buy-in is crucial. Tech shouldn’t be viewed as a magic cure-all or a direct replacement, but as an asset to staff to make their lives easier. It also needs to be implemented for a purpose, with an intended outcome that is measured and tracked. In other words, a new IT system or tech innovation shouldn’t be a mission in itself – it should come with a clear goal of improving patient care and other defined benefits, which makes staff more likely to engage with it.

Once they are engaged, it all comes down to how the new tech is delivered and implemented, which leads us back to training.

Evolving NHS learning

As a former NHS senior leader, improving access to learning and development – and engaging, useful, practical learning and development at that – has long been a passion project of mine. It has been the inspiration behind Acumentice’s recently launched EdTech product, Evolve Learning, which offers targeted and topical bite-sized courses to NHS managers across a range of key skills such as operational, motivational, data, digital, and people.

Evolve Learning, which is now also part of DigitalHealth.London’s innovation directory, recognises the need for staff to have the right access to learning and development early in their career to cement good practice.

It is designed to create bespoke micro-learning that helps reduce mistakes and boost productivity, as well as increase overall staff motivation. Focusing such development on managers alone could save the NHS more than £200mn just by improving staff productivity and wellbeing, without even considering the additional costs of correcting mistakes.

Let me provide some personal context. At Acumentice, we often step in to support trusts when big digital transformation projects – such as electronic patient records – have not been implemented effectively, or where the subsequent training has not been adequate. Building in short, sharp micro-eLearning will help to ensure this isn’t the case – or at the very least lessen its impact.

If the government and the NHS are serious about sustainably improving productivity, learning and development – and a much wider acknowledgement of what affects productivity – must be prioritised.

Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

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