NHS England offers £100m to develop centres of digital excellence

Bed in a modern clinic corridor

NHS England is continuing its push to develop the UK into a digital health powerhouse by awarding £100 million to the most digitally advanced NHS Trusts.

NHS England is inviting 26 acute trusts who are most advanced in digital adoption to apply for funds, with 10-16 trusts to gain up to £10 million each if selected to be a centre of global digital excellence.

Notable trusts invited to take part are Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, whose children’s hospital in Liverpool is currently part of a collaboration with IBM to develop the UK’s first ‘cognitive hospital’.

The West Suffolk, Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals and Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trusts are also included in the list of those trusts invited to apply for funding.

Those selected will be expected to lead the UK’s adoption of digital technologies into acute care provision and will be partnered with international sister organisations to help support workforce development, including the development of a next generation of Chief Clinical Information Officers.

The new fund comes amid mounting financial problems for the the majority of England's acute trusts, as government funding fails to keep up with ever-rising clinical demand.

NHS England wants to ensure that the ear-marked funds for IT projects is spent on digital transformation, and not on plugging holes in other budgets.

It hopes the competition for funding will also stimulate leadership at the local level, and make sure there are champions for digital projects on the frontline - vital if these major change management programmes are to succeed.

“It is evident the benefits of investing in and optimising use of digital technology to improve efficiency and enhance care is more widely understood, but we are not yet realising these benefits at scale or sufficiently quickly,” said professor Keith McNeil, Chief Clinical Information Officer at NHS England.

“We need to move faster in getting clinicians real time access to accurate information and joining up healthcare systems to improve outcomes for patients and reduce workload for doctors, nurses and other NHS staff. Our aim here is to create a national movement in which the centres of global digital excellence will be core.”

Participating trusts will be judged on their ability to deliver in three distinct areas: comprehensive use of electronic patient records, including the ability to make patient records available to doctors in real time and giving patients online access to their medical records; information sharing across the local health and care system, including the quality of digital correspondence between healthcare teams; and robust data security, including plans to address data security threats.

Paul Rice, head of technology strategy at NHS England, also commented on the new funding scheme: “We have a set of acute providers who are class leading in England when it comes to optimising digital technology. This benefits their clinicians, their patients and the wider community they serve. By stepping up to become world class they can join the most digitally advanced healthcare organisations across the globe and help deliver a sustainable and transformed NHS.”

Progress towards a national electronic health record (EHR) has been severely delayed in England because of the controversy around NHS England's care.data scheme.  The system had been due to launch in 2014, but a backlash against inadequate consent arrangements and concerns about data security means that the project was scrapped in July.  The scheme is expected to return under a new guise and with reinforced governance in the near future, but the problems have set back plans for a national EHR by years.

The new centres of digital excellence will be announced at the NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo this September. It is anticipated that global digital excellence centres will eventually be established in community, mental health and ambulance settings as well.

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Marco Ricci

8 August, 2016