Reaping the benefits of the digital revolution for health

By Philippa Brice

17 November 2014


The UK Government has released a new framework for action on using data and technology ‘to transform outcomes for patients and citizens’.

The Personalised health and care 2020 policy document from the Department of Health’s National Information Board (NIB) is intended to support health professionals, patients and citizens to ‘take better advantage of the digital opportunity’. The plan is to use lessons from industry and the wider economy to help the health and care system to use technological advances to meet the challenges of improving health and providing better and sustainable care, as well as widening access to health services and reducing inequalities.

Not only does much of the UK population regularly use (and increasingly expect to use) digital technologies in everyday life, but varied industries also employ it successfully; the report highlights aviation as having successfully implemented it despite compelling safety and security demands.

Proposals in the NIB framework include measures to:

  • Ensure patient access to their own care records, digital information services and NHS approved health and care apps
  • Give health professionals and carers access to all the information needed from NHS-funded services and the skills to use it
  • Make data on all publicly funded health and care services available to show outcomes and facilitate comparisons
  • Build and sustain public trust by ensuring confidence that data-sharing will improve care and health outcomes
  • Support innovation and growth – making England a leading global digital health economy and underpinning research, development and introduction of new therapeutics, ‘particularly in light of breakthroughs in genomic science to combat long-term conditions including cancer, mental health services and tackling infectious diseases’
  • Ensure that investments in technology reduce costs as well as improving health services and health

Safeguarding data, securing public trust

The intention of maintaining public confidence has been taken very seriously indeed, with the Government also announcing the appointment of Dame Fiona Caldicott to the newly created post of National Data Guardian. Along with an independent Information Governance Oversight Panel, dame Fiona ‘will become the patients’ champion on security of personal medical information’. The role is ultimately to have direct powers enshrined in law, but for the time being the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Care Quality Commission will act against any organisations that fail to comply with her recommendations  to create the ‘security of a much tougher and more transparent regime’ for patients.

Bridging the funding and quality gaps

The NIB's recommendations are in line with NHS England's recent Five Year Forward View report, which noted the importance of implementing technology and data sharing to address the looming NHS funding gap. Indeed, the new framework makes no bones about the need for investment in technology to yield both reduced demand and lower running costs for the NHS and social care services, ‘helping our NHS meet the efficiency, as well as quality, challenges it faces’.

It is similarly candid in the need for improvements in quality and outcomes, contrasting the success of clinical technological innovations in recent years with the failure to make use of technology and data to improve population and individual heath and the way health and social care services are delivered. It notes that to beleaguered health professionals the digital age has previously been merely ‘an intrusive additional burden in an already pressured existence’; taxpayers are missing out on efficiencies enabled by technology; and patients suffer from preventable ill-health and suboptimal care. Instead, the report is insistent that technology can be used to empower people to take charge of their own health.

Personalisation and partnerships

Personalisation of care and the impact of genomics are recurring issues in the framework, with the news that the Department of Health, NHS England, Genomics England and the Health & Social Care Information Centre will establish a working group with ‘other relevant scientific bodies’ to ensure that the NHS is capable of supporting genomics and molecular pathology to build on the 100,000 Genomes Project, which has been a key focus for the PHG Foundation.

The Department of Health will also work with industry representatives, Academic Health Science Networks and Centres and others to develop an industry strategy for partnering between  the health and care system and consumer digital and data industries, including to support the discovery and development of new therapeutics and interventions.

Moving forward

The NIB will publish roadmaps in early 2015 to provide more detail on both the evidence base and the implementation plans for digital health technologies, as well as seeking input from stakeholders on the plans. Overall, the plans are highly ambitious, but also visionary: can the digital revolution really deliver the fundamental shift in health and social care (and population health behaviours) so badly needed? Whilst the previous track record for implementing IT - including the now defunct NHS Connecting for Health agency and related programmes - has been questionable, this is a real opportunity for the NHS.

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