NHS digital leaders are leaving for the private sector in frustration over the “chaos” involved in introducing Matt Hancock’s tech “revolution”, a departing IT chief warns.
Richard Corbridge, formerly chief digital and information officer at Leeds teaching hospitals, describes the “excrutiating” situation of trying to realise centrally-imposed slogans such as “axe the fax” and “purge the pager” without dedicated funds.
Writing for The Telegraph, he points to a brain drain of top digital talent necessary for transforming the Health and Social Care Secretary’s flagship ambition into a reality.
Improving digital innovation in the health service is a central plank of the organisation’s 10-year plan announced in January.
However, recent months have seen the departure of several key leaders to the private sector, such as NHS England’s Chief Digital Officer Juliet Bauer, as well as chief information officers at Royal Brompton & Harefield and South London & Maudsley trusts, and senior staff at NHS Digital.
Basic innovations commonly embraced by businesses, such as embracing cloud technology or single sign-in systems, are passed up because funds are often diverted to “fighting today’s crisis”, Mr Corbridge warns.
Cloud services are considered crucial for improving the NHS’s clunky system for sharing patient records, currently considered the one of the biggest blocks to improving efficiency in the health service.
Meanwhile frontline doctors commonly grapple with up to 12 different passwords for various hospital systems, such as calling up test results, creating log-jams at computers on the wards.
While welcoming Mr Hancock’s vision and the promise of funds, Mr Corbridge argues that until cash for IT is ring-fenced hospital bosses will continue diverting it towards more “visible” concerns, such as extra beds.
“For a digital health leader, the situation is excrutiating,” he writes.
“The ideas are there, the intention is there, but without money to deliver innovation we’re stuck in a state of paralysis, unable to ease the burden for NHS staff who continue to battle against the problems caused by an ageing population, years of chronic underfunding and a staffing crisis that amounts to over 100,000 vacant posts.”
He says campaigns aboloshing the use of fax and pagers have been “enforced by centrally imposed deadlines, without consultation, additional funding or resource”.
Mr Corbridge has left to become director of innovation at Boots having first joined the NHS 23 years ago, while Juliet Bauer has joined LIVI, Europe’s largest provider of digital GP appointments.
A recent study by the Taxpayers Alliance, endorsed by Mr Hancock, found that one tenth of the NHS budget – roughly £12.5 billion – could be saved by the introduction of “automation” across the health service.
These included innovations such as the use of AI to analyse emergency calls, which some argue can react to life-threatening situations more quickly, as well as online GP booking.
As far back as 2002, the Wanless report advised that NHS trusts should allocate at least 3 per cent of their annual budget to IT, yet currently most devote closer to one per cent, said Mr Corbridge.
“A plan is only a plan when it has funding identified,” he writes. “Without that element, it’s an aspiration, a business case – no matter how good it is, it’s not a plan.”
He described leaving the public sector as “extremely sad”, but said there was a growing view among him and similar-minded colleagues that it is easier to improve services for patients from the private sector.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We recognise the NHS has been a frustrating place to work for some of our most talented technologists.
“We set up NHSX to cut red tape and make it easier for our talented tech workforce to get things done. “To help them in that ambition we are simplifying cluttered central tech bureaucracy mandating internationally recognised standards for NHS systems that will bring down the cost of technology, and re-enforcing procurement so our COIs can purchase the tools that they need.
“We’re at the start of this journey. We know that there is much more to do to deliver for patients and staff, and the NHS long-term plan, backed with an extra £33.9 billion in cash terms a year by 2023-24, will guarantee the future of our health service.”