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UK Budget 2024: NHS IT modernisation at heart of public sector productivity plan

Jeremy Hunt pre-Budget walking seo

UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt ahead of the 2024 Budget. Photo by WPA Pool via Getty Images

UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt has pledged £3.4 billion of funding to support digital transformation in the NHS as part of wider plans to boost productivity in the public sector.

The Treasury said (98-page / 1.12MB PDF) the money will be used to update “fragmented and outdated” IT systems across the NHS, enable data to be used better to reduce time spent on unproductive administrative tasks by NHS staff, and transform access and services for patients.

Specific plans for the money include for “scaling up existing use of AI and ensuring all NHS staff are equipped with modern computing technology”, upgrading over 100 MRI scanners with AI, and ensuring all NHS Trusts operate with electronic patient records by March 2026, the Treasury said.

Other funds will be used to test how AI could be used to automate back-office functions, such as “automating the writing and clinical coding of notes, discharge summaries and GP letters”. The Treasury said that a pilot initiative in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital had already found that AI “can reduce time spent on discharge summaries by more than 50%”.

Cerys Wyn Davies of Pinsent Masons, an expert in technology and data law, said: “The planned shift to electronic patient records and wider plans for harnessing data are to be welcomed, given the significant value that subsists in NHS data. This value has often been cited – and indeed was rightly identified by former health secretary Sajid Javid as central to delivering more effective personalised care only two years ago – but has yet to be fully realised. While data protection and security issues will need to be managed, the move to supercharge the use of data in the health service comes at a most opportune time given the opportunities AI presents to use data to improve processes and deliver better health outcomes.”

The Treasury also said that it would accelerate plans for a new federated data platform (FDP), which was announced last autumn as a measure to “connect disparate sets of data and allow them to be used more effectively for care”. While data held by GPs will not be connected via the FDP, it is envisaged that it could support more effective coordination of care between local health and social care providers. The government said it was both operational data – such as real-time information on the percentage of beds that are occupied in an NHS trust area – as well as integrated care system data – such as individual patient’s medical information – to be accessible to NHS staff through the FDP by the end of 2026-27.

Louise Fullwood of Pinsent Masons, who specialises in digital transformation in health and social care, said: “The availability of real-time data via the FDP has the potential to deliver performance and productivity benefits, such as facilitating the flow of patients from A&E departments to wards by making more accurate and up-to-date information on bed availability accessible, and encouraging patients in care homes to remain in the care home where issues can be best managed there rather than in a hospital.”

Improvements are also planned to the NHS app, to make it the “single front door through which patients can access NHS services and manage their care”. Patients will be able to order repeat prescriptions, manage appointments, and obtain instant access to their own health information via the app, as well as access “digitally-enabled prevention and early intervention services” – including a new digital health check – through the app. A new NHS staff app is also to be developed, which the Treasury said will “significantly reduce the bureaucracy involved in moving between different parts of the NHS, and eliminate the need to redo training courses, meaning more time can be spent on patient treatment and care”.

“This funding will significantly reduce the 13 million hours of time doctors spend on poor IT, freeing up significant capacity and revolutionising treatment for a range of illnesses such as cancer and strokes,” the Treasury said. “This will double the investment in technological and digital transformation in the NHS in England and turn the NHS into one of the most digitally enabled, productive healthcare systems in the world.”

The funding for technological and digital transformation in the NHS is part of a broader NHS productivity plan and an even wider goal of transforming productivity across public services, which the Office for National Statistics has estimated is currently 5.9% below what it was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As part of those plans, Hunt said the Treasury will “prioritise proposals that deliver annual savings within five years equivalent to the total cost of the investment required”. He said he hopes the funding deal announced for the NHS – under which the NHS has committed to increase average productivity growth by 1.9% from 2025-26 to 2029-30, rising to 2% over the final two years – will be a blueprint for similar arrangements with other parts of the public sector.

As a first step, the Treasury has committed £800 million of further funding for “productivity initiatives outside the NHS”, including £230m to pilot the use of technologies by the police – including testing the use of drones as “first responders”. Further funding will be aimed at modernising the justice system, while planning authorities will also be asked to pilot the use of AI to help them “streamline their local plan development processes”, with the aim of “producing plans in 30 months rather than the current average of seven years”, the Treasury said.

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