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Creaky systems 'cost lives': Health secretary Matt Hancock pledges to solve NHS IT woes

Former Minister of Fun slams lack of interoperability and reliance on faxes

Faltering NHS IT systems are "costing lives", health secretary Matt Hancock has said ahead of announcing a further £200m for trusts to create digital testbeds.

The former Minister of Fun will take to the stage at the NHS Expo in Manchester this afternoon for one of his first major speeches since taking over from Jeremy Hunt.

In contrast to yesterday's announcement of plans to boost the use of data-driven tech in the health sector, Hancock – a self-confessed technophile – will focus on the dodgy state of NHS IT.

His message is that, unless this is fixed, the health service won't make the most of the £20bn cash injection it has been handed.

"Like good tech elsewhere, we need technology that makes life easier for hard-working and often overstretched staff. We need technology that can run basic tasks and processes more efficiently," he will say.

"This will save the NHS money and free up staff time – money and time that can be better used to provide great care."

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Setting out the parlous state of IT systems across the health service, Hancock will point to the lack of interoperability and integration between hospital, GP surgery, social care and pharmacy systems – as well as the reliance on outdated kit.

Writing in an op-ed for The Telegraph, Hancock said on a recent visit to a hospital he "saw staff resorting to pen and paper because their own networks couldn't communicate".

Other concerns are the continued purchasing of fax machines – a recent report found there were more than 8,000 in England – and the regularity with which systems crash.

"Stuttering IT systems are costing lives," the op-ed stated. "Enough is enough. It's time to bring the health and care system into the 21st century."

Hancock acknowledged the NHS's long and chequered past when it came to major IT projects.

The £11bn National Programme for IT was scrapped in 2011, its scheme was canned amid accusations of botched public engagement, plans for a paperless NHS by 2018 were widely derided (and have patently failed) – the list goes on.

However, Hancock said it was time "to put the failures of the past behind us" while stressing that the sheer scale of the NHS's systems meant the plan could not be to create "one big system".

Rather, the NHS will impose open standards to ensure interoperability, along with increased standards for privacy and security – WannaCry no doubt ringing in the health department's ears.

The government has already chucked a lot of money at reform – in February 2016 Hunt announced £4.2bn for NHS tech. Later that year, it established a digital exemplar scheme that hands certain trusts cash to develop new approaches that can then be shared with others.

Today, Hancock announced a further £200m for that scheme, which will create the first exemplars for community, alongside those for acute, mental health and ambulance trusts.

He will also announce plans to pilot the new NHS App, which will allow patients to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, see their medical records and set data-sharing preferences, in five regions of England next month.

Whether he will mention the bumpy start of his own Matt Hancock app remains to be seen. ®

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