Digital Health Summer School: Getting together

After so much physical distance, it was good to attend this year’s Digital Health Summer School event – in person! – hosted by the University of York. The networking opportunities were highly appreciated and the energy that comes from being back together was palpable by all.

As aways, there was an impressive range of speakers and ideas – so impressive that I wanted to make sure they received the time and attention they deserve. I’ve summarised some thinking from a few sessions that really struck a chord for me:

  • Simon Bolton, of NHS Digital
  • Matthew Taylor, CEO at NHS Confed
  • Natasha Phillips, CNIO at NHS England
  • Rhidian Hurle, Executive Medical Director and Chief Clinical Information Officer at NHS Wales

The general thesis: Working together to effect change

On paper, the underlying theme of the event could have been, or should have been, all about working together – the sum of the whole being greater than the parts – in order to achieve the levels of change that the NHS is facing. However, my feeling is that most healthcare professions are still getting their own houses in order, crystallising their own minds, and pooling consensus around their profession’s role with digital skillsets and how they fit into the bigger picture.

Leaner, more efficient centre for the NHS

Simon Bolton discussed how the merger of NHS England and NHS Digital could result in a more efficient organisation run with fewer staff. He mused that the restructure could see some staff being redistributed to regional organisations, perhaps in support of the establishment of integrated care systems (ICSs). Interestingly, he commented that the NHS and social care system is far more complex than he had originally thought when he took up the post from a non-healthcare background. I felt this was a brave reflection, and one that I dream of digital transformation simplifying rather than hindering. It is critical that the application of more technology does not make an already difficult world of systems for clinicians even harder as they provide patient care.

Demand v. capacity

Matthew Taylor talked about the fundamental issue of demand and capacity within the NHS – and a recent blog of his summarises this very well. He suggests that universities are the place for innovation and the development of new technologies and sees ICSs as an opportunity for realigning care services that have traditionally been underfunded. He also advocated strongly that clinical leadership should be involved early on in any strategy changes – a view that is music to my ears when undertaking service co-design of patient care (though it’s hard to understand why it would be done any other way!). The session was essentially a dialogue on the systemic magnitude of some of the problems, along with the absurd daily challenges faced by frontline staff. The session enabled him to not only bond with the audience of savvy clinical leaders but also introduce his “split-screen” thinking concept as a means of emphasising the need for addressing urgent pressures while keeping the future vision in mind.

Engaging our largest healthcare workforce with digital

Natasha Phillips expanded her vision for the role of Chief Nursing Information Officer (CNIO), a role she currently occupies, and the work still required to prepare the nursing and midwifery professions – the largest workforce in healthcare and the face of the NHS that most patients will interact with – for using digital technology to provide care. She talked about the concern of many in nursing and midwifery that they are being asked to adopt change, and the use of technology, at a pace never before seen in the NHS, without any training. Natasha outlined the work of The Phillips Ives Review, which was launched earlier this year, to address these issues by looking at the needs of nurses and midwives, providing recommendations for educational and training needs, enabling them to provide safe, effective, digitally-enabled practice. I am truly excited and place great faith in the robust consultation process that Natasha and The Philips Ives Review Team are leading on to guide the profession, as well as to inform technology strategy in the NHS.

Harnessing tech to deliver change

After these three highly strategic presentations, I also attended some more technology-focused discussions. Rhidian Hurle shared some inspirational ideas in his trademark humorous style about how to approach interoperability and deliver IT. His key point, which at Imprivata we’ve been talking about for many years, is the importance of designing systems around clinician and patient needs. He talked about working in partnership with industry and academia, and recognising the difference between national and local needs. He stressed the need for collaboration between local organisations to develop joint plans to support nationwide priorities. All approaches and outcomes that an audience from largely English organisations looked upon Welsh systems with a slight glimmer of envy.

Cybersecurity and patient safety

And finally, I want to touch on the panel discussion that I took part in on why cybersecurity is about patient safety. This well-chaired discussion was led by Paul Charney, with fellow technical panellists, in a fluid dialogue with an audience clearly grappling with the implications of technological innovation during the pandemic. My fellow panellists included:

  • James Norman, EMEA Health & Life Science Director, Pure Storage
  • Mike Fell, Executive Director, National Cyber Security Operations
  • Daniel Hallen, Head of Digital Technology and Digital Urgent & Emergency Care, NHS England & Improvement – North West

While the majority of the topics were technical for a technical audience, largely about the design requirements and policy approaches for cybersecurity in healthcare, I enjoyed representing that thorny topic of human behaviour and how healthcare workers are challenged to access data. From my own point of view, any systems in health, including cybersecurity elements, need to be people-centric, with successful outcomes defining success – which boils down to speed of access that is secure by default.

Coming together : The convergence of technology and care

Overall, there was a lot of talk about convergence. And, which while it can mean many things, in this instance I understood it as the meeting of technology and care – how they come together to deliver a better experience for clinician and patient, with better outcomes. Interestingly, this discussion is being driven largely by CIOs and Simon Bolton, interim CEO of NHSD, many of whom come from non-healthcare backgrounds. New sets of eyes, with new ideas, need to be welcomed and when combined with lessons learned from the past can drive us all forward to look afresh at what is required to make change in the NHS a success.

We all need to work together if we are to make the new ICSs work for patients. We’re not there yet, but we’re not far off.