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The new battle on the doorstep – opening the digital doorway to the NHS

Rachel Rowson

Opening a digital doorway into the NHS is one of the more ambitious elements in the NHS Long Term Plan –  with the potential to radically change the way in which patients access and experience the NHS in England.

Opening a digital doorway into the NHS is one of the more ambitious elements in the NHS Long Term Plan, which otherwise offers much consistency from what has gone before. For anyone who lived through the upheaval of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, this continuity and evolution will be somewhat of a relief. But a Plan, where the adoption of digital technology and other innovations are given equal billing to the management of healthcare conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease, gives an important new focus in forcing the NHS into the 21st century.

Digital-first primary care

Primary care is going to be transformed with some bold and exciting commitments on digital.  By 2023/24 every patient in England will be able to access a digital first primary care offer, including online, telephone or video consultations.

This is billed to have a triple benefit.  Being good for the patient – by reducing waiting times and the inconvenience of having to travel to a GP surgery.  Being good for the workforce – by creating a new way of working more flexibly than was previously possible.  Being good for the NHS – by ensuring that the GP payment model does not favour one type of provider over another and therefore ensuring that controversy like that with GP at Hand being accused of cherry picking the simplest patients is avoided in future.

The right to virtual consultations in 5 years is a fantastic ambition.  What is not included in the Plan is how that will be delivered.  This lack of detail, in all parts of the Plan, is an opportunity for prospect service providers to help fill in the detail and make this a reality.

Will we ever have a paperless NHS?

In secondary care, the ambition for it to be fully digitised remains a key commitment in the Long Term Plan.  But the deadline has been pushed back again!

Previous timelines for a paperless NHS have slipped from 2018 to 2020 to 2023 and now this Plan pushes the deadline back a year further to 2024.  It is important that there is a realistic timeframe for delivery on what is a huge piece of work, but a system run on paper and faxes is completely unsustainable and undesirable in 2019, so it is important that progress is made quickly, and that this new deadline is met.

Supporting the adoption and diffusion of innovations

The Plan makes an important commitment to a new mandated MedTech fund.  Up until now, only medicines approved by NICE have had mandatory funding arrangements, whereas the case for funding a medical technology had to be made to each commissioner or service.  This has been a barrier and frustration as it has stifled the development and adoption of non-pharmaceutical solutions.

Uptake of proven, affordable innovations, particularly digital products and apps, will be accelerated through a new Medtech funding mandate.  This will help to give developers more certainty about getting a product paid for and give healthcare professionals a bigger range of tools and options to support patients as individuals, where the funding is guaranteed.

Predicting what the NHS will look like, and how society will be engaging with digital technologies in a 10-year timeframe, would be a challenge for even the best futurologist.  This Plan sets a level of ambition for the digital future of the NHS which is inspirational but still realistic.  If the digital elements of the Plan are fully implemented and timeframes don’t slip, it has the potential to radically change the way in which patients access and experience the NHS in England, throwing open the door to a digitally led health service of the future.