The health service could save tens of millions of pounds if its leaders were more willing to embrace technology to manage their workforce, according to a report from London School of Economics academics and a thinktank.

Report co-author Tony Hockley, director of the Policy Analysis Centre, said: “It’s a lack of leadership that’s stymieing progress in moving towards a digital NHS.”

In the report, NHS Staffing: Not Just a Number, funded by IT company Kronos, the authors claim that “very conservative” estimates suggest that £71.5m could be saved through automation of staff pay, timekeeping records and real-time data on staffing levels.

The report states: “These are ambitions that could be readily achieved with no additional bureaucracy if the NHS had a leadership that was more willing to embrace digital workforce management solutions.”

The authors claim that this saving could be re-invested to cover staff overtime. “This is money that could be used to reduce reliance on unpaid overtime, which can affect staff motivation and [retention], or to improve total staffing levels.”  

According to the report the NHS relies on “weak data” which prevents the service making the most of its workforce. 

Mr Hockley said he decided to work on the report because of a “frustration that managers weren’t engaging with something that seemed so obvious and so logical”.

He added that beyond e-rostering there had been little interest in introducing IT systems to monitor staffing. “There was a push behind e-rostering but nothing further to that and the more we looked at it the more we saw that this was a fairly straightforward IT investment with a fairly quick payback.”

In the wake of the Francis report there has been debate over staff-patient ratios. However, the authors claim that much of this debate is “somewhat academic in the absence of a robust system for planning, monitoring, and recording staff numbers”.

The authors argue that the health secretary’s current focus on a “paperless NHS” seems to “largely ignore the importance of real-time information on the deployment of hospital nurses”.

In the report’s introduction Alastair McGuire, chair of health economics at the LSE, writes that a lack of detailed data on the health service workforce is inhibiting efficiencies in this area.

He writes: “If productivity growth is to be relied upon to improve the NHS this requires knowledge over what are the optimal skill mixes with which to provide treatments; what are the tasks best suited to differing types of labour within the NHS; and which rewards and incentives ought to be used to ensure that these skills are forthcoming…there is little information relating to these questions.”

The authors claim that real-time data should be used to monitor staffing levels at all times and that “unannounced inspections by the Care Quality Commission should not be the only way in which real staffing levels come to light.”

Mr Hockley argued that the Department of Health’s call for monthly publication of trust’s staffing levels was not an unrealistic expectation. He said: “The most important finding is that what’s demanded now by Francis and the Department of Health is actually very easily achieved to the benefit of patients and hospital finances.”