UK finance minister promises NHS £3.4B IT investment to unlock £35B savings

Now, who was it 'challenged' the NHS to go paperless by 2018?

The UK's finance minister has promised the country's National Health Service (NHS) £3.4 billion ($4.33 billion) in IT investment, claiming it would unlock £35 billion ($44 billion) in efficiency savings by the end of the decade.

Speaking as he presented the nation's budget yesterday, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the exchequer, told the UK Parliament: "The investment needed to modernise NHS IT systems so they are as good as the best in the world costs £3.4 billion. But it helps unlock £35 billion ($44 billion) of savings, ten times that amount."

In a document released with the budget [PDF], the government set out its Public Sector Productivity Programme, which includes the NHS IT spending spree.

It says the spending would double investment in the NHS's "technological and digital transformation," including upgrading vital MRI scanners and rolling out universal electronic patient records.

It's time to celebrate the abysmal efforts to go paperless in the NHS


The government claimed the spending would help the NHS — one of the world's largest healthcare organizations — deal with the challenges caused by the pandemic, as well as the fact that investment is lagging the reality of health economics, by cutting the time that frontline workers must spend on administrative tasks.

"This will help unlock £35 billion in cumulative productivity savings from 2025-26 to 2029-30," the document claims.

The broader public services productivity programme would see £800 million ($1.02 billion) spent in return for £1.8 billion ($2.3 billion) in benefits over the forecast period, it said. But departments getting the money have to "develop detailed productivity plans, building on their work to date," it said.

In the NHS, the government claimed the additional investment in technology would "significantly reduce the 13 million hours of time doctors spend on poor IT, freeing up significant capacity and revolutionizing treatment for a range of illnesses such as cancer and strokes."

"This investment in NHS technology will be central to a wider NHS productivity plan, including workforce productivity improvements set out in the long term workforce plan," it said.

With the IT investment, Hunt said the NHS would commit to 1.9 percent average productivity growth from 2025-26 to 2029-30, rising to 2 percent over the final two years.

Within the £3.4 billion ($4.34 billion), he earmarked £430 million ($548 million) to "transform access and services for patients, giving them more choice and the ability to manage and attend appointments virtually, and enabling £2.5 billion [$3.19 billion] savings over five years."

"This will not only make it easier for people to access the NHS, but it will also help to tackle waiting lists, reduce waiting times and ensure patients get the care they need more quickly," the budget document says.

The vision for a more tech-enabled NHS includes making the NHS App the "single front door through which patients can access NHS services and manage their care" and, in doing so, theoretically reduce up to 500,000 missed appointments.

The NHS App would also have a role in prevention by introducing a new digital health check to help people at high risk of early onset conditions to be "identified early." It would also help them access vaccination or screening appointments.

AI GP letters might become a thing

The plan includes a pilot project to test the ability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate back office functions. “By automating the writing and clinical coding of notes, discharge summaries and GP letters, clinicians will be able to spend more time with patients at more appointments," the document says.

The government also reckons it would provide "an acceleration" of the controversial Federated Data Platform (FDP) to bring together operational and data from the Integrated Care Systems, which manage healthcare on a regional basis across health disciplines. "Amongst other benefits, the NHS estimates the FDP could enable a 10 percent improvement in theatre utilisation, freeing up consultants to do an extra 200,000 operations procedures a year."

The £330 million ($420 million) contract for the FDP was awarded to Palantir at the end of a chain of events which began when the US spy-tech company agreed to work for the NHS for £1 at the height of the pandemic. Before the final contract award — which NHS England said was made via fair and open competition — Palantir was awarded £60 million ($75 million) in uncontested contracts for related work. The FDP is subject to two legal cases from patient privacy and legal campaigners.

Lastly, the government says all NHS Trusts would have Electronic Patient Records by March 2026, "ending reliance on outdated physical paper records across the system and ensuring patients can easily access records across all NHS systems."

Reasonable readers might find it impossible to take in the news without recalling that 11 years ago, while serving as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government's health minister, Hunt "challenged" the NHS to go paperless by 2018.

"This means that in the vast majority of cases, whether a patient needs a GP, hospital or a care home, the professionals involved in their care can see their history at the touch of a button and share crucial information," he said at the time.

It should be noted that the opposition Labour Party has also been tempted by the promise that a "fully digital NHS" could "totally reframe the NHS and how it operates, and save money."

Efforts to make electronic patient records ubiquitous through the complex maze of organizations, specialisms and professions that make up the NHS have a long history, dating back at least to the disastrous £10 billion (c $13.7 billion) National Programme for IT, the contracts for which were awarded under a Labour government around 20 years ago. Maybe if the NHS waits another 20 years, it might just reach its paperless promised land. Or maybe it will still be 20 years away. ®

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