Listening to digital health innovators report 2021
Published 20 August 2021
Foreword from Tara Donnelly
Welcome to the second listening to digital health innovators report. The first report, published in the autumn of 2019, outlined the five themes that digital health innovators identified at that time as the main issues they faced as barriers to adoption, and the subsequent work that NHSX was undertaking to address these.
This report, compiled in the spring of 2021, reflects the impact of the pandemic for companies who have been working closely with the NHS and social care. The past year has challenged health systems globally and seen rapid growth in digital health care in many countries across the world. We have sought to lead the way in the NHS in England and a number of digital health solutions have made an enormous contribution, such as connecting citizens with clinical teams, enabling care and consultations to continue at a distance, providing remote specialist advice or through linking up care homes to medical support. The pace has also been remarkable, with deployments taking place within days and weeks rather than months or years, with no corners cut but decision making happening at the speed of light and brilliant team work to ensure patients benefit as rapidly as possible.
The 15 months between the first Listening to innovators report and this one have seen unprecedented change in the way that healthcare is delivered by the NHS. Although the NHS Long Term Plan has guided accelerated strategic delivery of digital technology during the pandemic, many tactical decisions have needed to be taken to deliver more care, more quickly, in difficult environments. There have been opportunities for digital innovators, but also new challenges around standards and governance that NHSX has been addressing.
This report picks out five themes that innovators have highlighted over the course of the pandemic and how NHSX is addressing them:
- Accelerated digital adoption was evident across the NHS, but supported by smarter procurement frameworks and enhanced information governance (IG) support in a new IG page on the website
- Approach and delivery for digital solutions have been accelerated with remote first care implemented across the NHS. NHSX has sponsored remote care through the adoption of new digital pathways, virtual wards, and virtual primary care appointments across England. This was a huge change in delivery that the technology companies and the NHS collectively made last year.
- Expanding services has been essential for both the NHS and innovators in order to pivot to meet the changing demand that COVID has brought. Supported innovators are with guide and providers with Digital Technology Assessment Criteria for Health and Social Care (DTAC), an entry level technology standards framework and a guide to good practice for digital and data-driven health and care technologies, a report to help innovators understand what the NHS looks for in digital and data driven technologies.
- Responding to service provision outside the pandemic outlines the major initiatives beyond the COVID pandemic. This includes AI laboratory strategy, digital playbooks and accessing health and care records which are being rolled out across the health and social care.
- Digital capabilities of the NHS is a concern to innovators. There are programmes supporting the digital skills of NHS boards, skills training for clinical teams, training for all staff under the digital ready workforce programme as well as the flagship Digital Academy.
I was heartened to read that digital health innovators consider that there has been greater recognition of them as partners as a result. There are increased levels of enthusiasm for digital products across the NHS and our mission is to make sure that NHS and social care staff are aware of the developments in devices and digital platforms that can truly transform care and that the momentum gained in the past year supports a continued move of digital innovations to be part of mainstream healthcare.
A great deal has changed over the last year but despite difficult times, digital health solutions have made an enormous contribution and our commitment to enabling better care through technology remains stronger than ever.
Tara Donnelly, Chief Digital Officer, NHSX
NHSX has a clear ambition and strategy to digitise, connect and transform health and social care and an important part of this to encourage digital innovation to flourish; to solve problems and improve services delivered to citizens.
Since the global COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdown measures, both citizens and providers of health and social care have adopted digital technology as a conduit to care and the demand for more digital pathways has accelerated.
The NHS now needs to embed these changes in order to succeed. Digital innovators are key to this. The listening to digital health innovators report aims to outline and respond to the top five themes that digital innovators need to help accelerate and scale change, as well as highlighting the work that NHSX are undertaking in this area to further support this agenda. The report is the second in our series.
NHSX is a joint unit of NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care, supporting local NHS and care organisations to:
- digitise their services
- connect the health and social care systems through technology
- transform the way patients’ care is delivered at home, in the community and in hospital
Why we listen to innovators
When NHSX launched in July 2019, we committed to creating an environment where digital innovation could flourish. Since then, we have worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to put in place the mechanisms and environment to support adoption and address key barriers that were recognised by technology companies who work with the NHS.
It is important to acknowledge the changes to all our lives since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital health has been central to our response. A number of technologies have been adopted very rapidly to support virtual consultations, remote monitoring, and to support the diagnosis and treatment of patients with COVID-19. Whilst there has been an acknowledgement of the contribution that technologies have made to support services within the pandemic - some digital programmes were paused as teams within the NHS were deployed to work on supporting patient care or vaccinations within the pandemic.
We published the first Listening to innovators report in October 2019 with five priority themes identified by technology companies that would improve the adoption of digital innovation within the NHS, and work that was underway to address these themes.
Since that report was published NHSX has implemented a number of recommendations. A procurement framework was commissioned which included a category for innovators within the Health Service Support Framework (HSSF). The Digital Technology Assessment Criteria was launched in beta in the autumn and in full in February 2021. This addresses much of the concern about standards raised in the initial report and is described in detail within this report.
Additionally, we have established a digital innovation function to provide support to innovators and lead work to scale digital tools across a priority area, supporting people at home through tech-enabled care. We have moved NHSX innovator events to virtual events, meaning we can open these sessions to a larger audience. We also held dozens of individual sessions with digital health innovators.
There is still much to do and we have undertaken three interactive polls and virtual workshops over the last four months to ask technology companies what the barriers and priorities are, following a turbulent 15 months. You can rewatch our events from December 2020 and March 2021.
As the ecosystem has changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, so have the priorities suppliers and innovators have highlighted to us that will become our focus for the next 12 months. The top five themes are listed below.
Five top themes
The responses quite understandably, focused on changes to their practise of the last year and how they had responded. The five highest themes are highlighted below:
- Accelerated digital adoption
- Approach and delivery
- Expanding services
- Non-COVID-19 work
- Digital capability
The priorities of technology standards and ease of procurement underpinned many of the themes above and we will describe our response to these within the document.
Some of the themes identified in this report resonate with the techUK Ten Point Plan for Healthtech, published in February. Digital capability within the NHS and a standards first approach to interoperability are picked up by both. However, whereas the techUK report makes recommendations for the NHS, the focus of listening to digital health innovators is aimed at understanding the needs of suppliers of digital technology and to make recommendations for how we as the NHS need to respond to these needs.
1. Accelerated digital adoption
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the adoption of digital technologies in the NHS and changes to the way services are provided at an unprecedented pace. This was the most frequently raised topic, with innovators observing a marked increase in speed of decision making and deployment, a significant reduction in typical barriers, an increased interest from NHS staff and people towards digital transformation of care, and a recognition by the NHS that innovators were key delivery partners in response to the pandemic. Nonetheless, some innovators did note specific real and perceived barriers that still hinder adoption of their solutions, particularly in procurement and information governance.