Plans to drive technological change in the NHS will be welcomed by NHS trusts and medical technology developers alike, experts in digital health have said.

In a speech delivered earlier this week, Matt Hancock, the health secretary in England, outlined a range of measures aimed at promoting tech-driven innovation in the NHS, including new funding for testing health technologies, plans for improved data infrastructure, and a drive to boost digital skills and understanding within NHS trust boards.

Cline Helen

Helen Cline

Legal Director

Technological change is an essential element in unlocking the value in NHS care and patient data for the benefit of patients and the wider economy

Hancock used his speech at a conference hosted by the Healthtech Alliance to highlight current inefficiencies in NHS processes that he said could be improved upon through the use of new technology, including the way patient records and blood supplies are managed. In addition to "fixing the digital plumbing", Hancock said he wants the NHS to be a place where cutting-edge innovation in areas such as genomics and artificial intelligence (AI) can be implemented.

The NHS has estimated, however, that it takes 17 years on average for it to adopt a new product or device from the point of a successful clinical trial.

Fullwood Louise

Louise Fullwood

Legal Director

Clients on both sides are often frustrated by the practical difficulties in getting innovative technology into the NHS 

Digital health expert Louise Fullwood of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said she is aware of frustrations on both the commissioning and supplier side in this regard and welcomed Hancock's announcement that the NHS AI Lab, established last year, will make £140 million in total available to medtech companies that successfully apply to trial their ideas in partnership with the AI Lab.

"It has been our experience in our digital health practice that clients on both sides are often frustrated by the practical difficulties in getting innovative technology into the NHS – whether the health tech companies themselves having difficulty in finding the route into the NHS or NHS staff seeing a clear value in a new technology but lacking a clear route to procure or commission the product or service," Fullwood said.

"Those views were echoed by delegates at the Healthtech Alliance conference, and so we would all welcome any measures which can assist on accelerated access to valuable health tech innovations, both in primary and secondary healthcare, but also not overlooking the substantial potential to improve social care too," she said.

Wyn Davies Cerys

Cerys Wyn Davies

Partner

There is still work to do before Hancock's vision for data reform in the NHS will materialise

Helen Cline, also of Pinsent Masons, said technological change "is an essential element in unlocking the value in NHS care and patient data for the benefit of patients and the wider economy".

Cline said Hancock's latest speech on the topic is a continuation of government policy in recent times which has seen the introduction of a life sciences sector deal aimed at deriving benefit for patients from improved collaboration between industry and NHS bodies. She said it also chimes with the technology vision for healthcare published by the UK government in 2018 and the long term plan for the NHS in England set out last year.

The technology vision for the NHS aims to build "the most advanced health and care service in the world" underpinned by a modern technology architecture, a set of open standards and a focus on interoperability. The vision is linked to better pathways of care for patients – a safer more efficient and effective care system with patients getting access to the best care. The NHSX unit has been tasked with strategic responsibility for setting the national direction on technology across the NHS’s organisations and will take over the NHS digital strategy.

Hancock said introducing new technology to the NHS would help give doctors back "the gift of time", enabling them to care for patients. Pivotal to the changes envisaged is fixing the way patient records are managed, he said.

"Most important of all, we’re going to create a modern, secure, interoperable data infrastructure, so patient records can be accessed from wherever you are in the system, including by us patients," Hancock said. "Our vision for NHS data architecture is to make it more like the back end of the internet – open, interoperable, easily upgradeable."

Cerys Wyn Davies of Pinsent Masons said: "There is still work to do before Hancock's vision for data reform in the NHS will materialise. As well as reliable and secure technologies we need  greater transparency, understanding and confidence for patients so that the benefits of data access and sharing are clear; as well as capability, clarity and confidence for NHS organisations and commercial entities to enter into data sharing arrangements for the benefit of patients, public health and the NHS."