Will the new government get health tech right?

It’s health tech policy announcement season. Another false dawn or will these hit the spot this time asks the Digital Healthcare Council Director Graham Kendall.

Over the course of the next few weeks, NHSX will launch its full plans for the health tech agenda for the NHS. These set pieces will have a disproportionate impact on the shape of digital health investment over the immediate future. It’s vital we get them right.

We are expecting a major announcement imminently on harmonising digital standards, and as the HSJ reported this week, we will soon start to see the reality of the “digital aspirant” programme designed to bring the less mature digital players up to speed. While the Spending Round has already determined the ongoing financial envelope, it’s hard to imagine that Rishi Sunak will let health pass by in his first Budget on 11 March given the context of the looming coronavirus threat. This will be the first budget since NHSX was launched, so we are sure they have requested a hefty financial settlement.

One of the big perennial questions facing digital health has been how to make sure the money follows patients and funds innovations that genuinely transform care. Too often in the past we’ve had well trumpeted prime ministerial announcements committing millions, sometimes billions into eye-catching initiatives. But when the dust settles, the money has too often failed to materialise or has been restricted to capital spend when revenue was needed. Governments of all hues have repeatedly strutted this walk of shame, so we need a substantially different approach to ensure this time will be different.

The recent announcement that NHSX will explore minimum technology spends for Trusts is intriguing and the sentiment is undoubtedly welcome. Implementation is of course where the challenges lie. Success must be measured by how the spending translates to innovative digital solutions that are genuinely transformative and deliver tangible improvements that free up clinicians’ time to concentrate on patient care or dramatically improve patient safety.

Of course, the UK is not alone in facing these challenges. Germany has made huge strides recently overcoming years of frustration and missed opportunities by introducing a standardised mechanism that allows reimbursement for evidence-led digital health. Clearly there are differences with the NHS, but the similarities both in the challenge and the potential are striking. In essence, digital solutions have become ‘prescribable’ with reimbursement based on a clear framework of evidence-based value to patients. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a NICE-like appraisal mechanism delivering similar benefits here. Germany’s approach appears to be on course to cut through an often bewildering and overlapping set of processes to deliver a simple mechanism to improve access, increase uptake and deliver tangible returns.

It’s rare for Government policy innovations to be lauded by industry as transformational but that is happening in Germany right now. That’s why the Digital Health Council is going to explore this in depth over the next few months. These are lessons ripe for learning.

The Digital Healthcare Council is the ‘go to’ voice for digital health, working to inform the development of policy and regulation. Our members deliver care digitally both directly to patients and by working in partnership with others. For more information contact digitalhealthcarecouncil@zpb-associates.com.