The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is launching a new unit this July to digitally transform the 70-year-old free public health system. Known as NHSx, the new unit hopes that both staff and patients will benefit from the latest technology of this digital age. 

Primarily, according to the press release published in February, NHSx will assume a diverse set of responsibilities. They range from drafting technology-related healthcare policy, establishing new standards, reforming procurement, ensuring the new technologies are trustworthy and safe, and enhancing digital skills, etc. This means the unit is working closely with other departments under the NHS. 

A positive start 

At the start of the month, NHSx announced Matthew Gould to be its new Chief Executive Officer. Gould used to be a British diplomat to Israel and is now the Director-General for Digital and Media Policy of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He does not have formal training in medicine or healthcare but has been relentlessly pushing for science and technology initiatives between UK and Israel. 

Some of his efforts include the launch of the UK-Israel Technologies Hub in 2010 and revamping of BIRAX (Britain-Israel Research and Academic Partnership) Regenerative Medicine Initiative to fund related projects in both countries. As such, it will not be surprising for NHSx to actively promote collaborations across departments and regions. 

Around the same time, NHSx also announced that its digital and data specialists will work together with NHS England’s cancer and mental health national policy teams to assist policymakers and healthcare professionals to improve patient experience via the use of technology. Specifically, the technology experts will support the team by supplying clinicians with appropriate diagnostic information of a patient. They will also make it easier for patients to access services via their smartphones and simplify the collection and usage of health data for research. If it’s successful, NHSx plans to roll it out to the entire NHS. 

Technology first or Problem-solving first 

In the latest AIMed Magazine: The Global Issue, Eleonora Harwich, Director of Research and Head of Digital and Tech Innovation of Reform, a leading UK think-tank for public service reform, wrote an article on the readiness of NHS to go digital. She began by mentioning the gap between innovations and actual problems. Often, industry is sort after new technologies instead of finding solutions for existing challenges. Even if the technology was meant to solve a problem, there is usually not enough considerations for scaling up. 

A lack of funding, high patient demands, staff burnout, aging population, and inefficiency are some of the challenges face by present-day NHS. How and when technology will be able to systematically address these challenges remain in question. Besides, as Harwich pointed out, it’s likely that NHS will partner external organizations to develop digital solutions. However, there is a lack of transparent partnership agreements between NHS organizations and private sector when it comes to data access requests or data sharing. Although NHSx had penned this as one of their responsibilities, this kind of commercial models are still novel to NHS because there is a lack of clarity in terms of the value exchange between NHS, private enterprises, patients and the sector. 

In other words, there are many gaps to fill before NHS can fully go digital. Whether the birth of NHSx will change the game, it is up to time to judge.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.