The NHS as a social movement: the role of technology

19 January 2016

Last week, Reform was delighted to partner with NHS England to convene a conference exploring how technology can support the NHS to become a “social movement” – one of the Five Year Forward View’s key objectives. Having previously worked with the Department of Health, this was our first conference with NHS England.

Four key themes emerged from the day:

i) NHS England’s commitment to digital transformation is real;

ii) creative use of technology is happening in places but utilisation remains a challenge;

iii) the NHS environment for innovation could be more supportive; and

iv) the value of healthcare data has been only partially tapped.

NHS England’s commitment

Tracey Grainger, Head of Digital Primary Care Development at NHS England, delivered the keynote address. Her message was clear: digital will no longer be “on the edge of services”, instead it will be “integral” to service delivery. She did not shy away from the implications of this. Technology will entail greater self-management and fewer patients physically visiting traditional GPs, pharmacies and A&Es.

Digital utilisation

Some places are already making this vision a reality. Tracey Grainger highlighted results from the Prime Minister’s GP Access Fund. 20 sites, covering 18 million patients, are trialling telephone appointments and e-consultations.

Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan, highlighted their success in hosting a 24/7 online peer support network, which currently has approximately 50,000 users.

Generally, however, digital utilisation remains low. Nationally 4 per cent of patients use the internet to order repeat prescriptions and 12 per cent to book GP appointments.

Environment for innovation

Several speakers argued that the NHS can inhibit the adoption of new technologies which other healthcare systems would allow. Michael Seres, founder of 11Health, related his experience of successfully launching a new product in the United States while being unable to navigate the NHS’s entry criteria.

Dr Saif Abed noted that it’s right that the NHS requires new technologies to be supported by robust evidence. Gerry Aue, of McKinsey & Company, suggested the development of an anonymised health data platform, and the use of payment by results for new technologies, could better support innovation.

Health data

The potential value of patients’ health data and associated data governance issues, such as security and patient consent, were touched on repeatedly. Speakers suggested an ‘opt-out’ model – like in pensions – could be the default setting for patient data-sharing.

Dr Phil Koczan, Chief Clinical Information Officer at UCL Partners and a part-time GP, noted, however, that the volume of data emerging will present challenges for GPs. He spoke of being “terrified” by patients arriving with data generated by their ‘Fitbit’ or ‘Jawbone’. Using this data is a new challenge for GPs.


NHS England is clearly committed to making more ambitious use of technology. Tracey Grainger described the NHS as “at the start of a journey”. The destination is clear: using technology to empower patients and reduce avoidable demand on NHS services.

Leo Ewbank, Researcher, Reform



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