Joe Public wants NHS to spend its cash on cancer, mental health, not digital services

Sorry Matt, looks like the app revolution takes a backseat to quality health care

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The public wants the NHS's £20.5bn cash boost to be spent on cancer care, mental health and recruiting and retaining staff – not digital services.

According to a poll carried out for think tank IPPR, access to digital services is the lowest priority for spending, with the highest being better quality cancer care.

The survey asked 1,800 adults what they would like to see prioritised as the UK government figures out where to spend the funding promised to the NHS in the last summer. This will see spending increased by 3.4 per cent each year for the next five years, to £20.5bn by 2023.

But despite the best efforts of government leaders and health tech firms to talk up digital services, it appears the public isn't that about them.

ComRes, who carried out the poll, used maxdiff survey analysis to assign a score for each of the 16 areas it asked the public to rate, and access to digital services came bottom, with a score of 1.2.

In contrast, top of the list was better quality cancer care, scoring 9.8 – making it about eight times more popular as an investment option. Staff recruitment, training and retention, and mental health care, rank second and third.

This could be seen as something of a blow to recently transplanted health secretary Matt Hancock's much-touted aim of revolutionising tech in the NHS, since a public that isn't interested in digital services might not, er, choose to use them.

Certainly, the NHS hasn’t given people much to go on: the report noted that despite 90 per cent of people having access to internet, and 73 per cent to a smartphone, just 2 per cent reported digitally enabled transactions with the NHS.

"The NHS has failed to fully embrace the fourth industrial revolution," came the understatement in the IPPR's report.

But the think tank insists that data and tech are the bedrock of the fundamental reforms the health service needs – and that the public will like it if the NHS goes ahead and does it anyway.

"Our polling finds that the public do not want to prioritise digital health, but they do value high quality care: so where technology can help deliver this, it should be prioritised," the report said.

Indeed, it argued that there are "significant opportunities" to be had – listing numerous ideas, most of which have been mooted before, such as using wearables to "drive healthy behaviours" or using machine learning to improve prediction and prevention of disease.

Automating processes could bring productivity improvements worth £12.5bn a year, it claimed, and would free up clinicians and staff time elsewhere.

However, the IPPR cautioned the NHS needs to sort out the basics if it wants to benefit from technology – improving its ageing digital infrastructure and focusing on creating interoperable datasets across the country.

The long-term plan that the government has to draw up to determine where to spend the new cash should include a new information governance system, the IPPR said, along with requiring all NHS trusts to have a CTO at board level.

Crucially, this person needs to have funding to make changes – and this means finding extra money beyond the £20.5bn, as this so-called 70th birthday present can only be spent on the main NHS mandate, and excludes areas like workforce training, capital budgets and the public health grant to local authorities.

Meanwhile, the health secretary has been very vocal about his tech "vision" for the NHS, talking up the first meeting of his health tech brains trust yesterday – but less has been said about exactly where the money for the promised revolution will come from. ®


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