Future of flagship NHS global digital exemplar programme unclear, reports Health Service Journal

23rd May 2019
  • NHS England’s global digital exemplar strategy in doubt amid looming cull of central IT projects
  • Promised £200m second wave of exemplar trusts in limbo
  • Strategy has been led by departing NHS England deputy CEO Matthew Swindells

The future of the national strategy to improve NHS providers’ IT systems is in doubt amid budget constraints and the departure of its champion at NHS England, HSJ has been told.

A senior NHS source said overall central funding for planned digital programmes through to March 2021 is significantly short of what is needed, and NHS England’s “global digital exemplar” programme was the most “at risk” of being cut.

Meanwhile, several NHS IT industry sources involved in the programme, which was originally planned to run until the end of 2020-21, believe it is already being wound down.

In September last year, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced the government would spend more than £200m on a new wave of trusts to become global digital exemplars, joining 23 trusts announced under his predecessor. The NHS long-term plan also includes a commitment to a “new wave of global digital exemplars”.

However, an NHS England spokesman confirmed this week that, more than eight months after the additional funding was announced, no trusts have so far been invited to bid to become a new GDE.

NHS IT suppliers and provider sources told HSJ they have been told plans for a new wave of GDEs were in doubt and whatever money was available for improving trust IT systems would be distributed on a case-by-case basis.

The GDE programme has been NHS England’s main approach for improving the poor state of trust IT systems since 2016. Based on a recommendation from a review by Bob Wachter, it has funded a group of “exemplar” trusts to develop “digital blueprints” for other NHS trusts to use as the template to digitise their own organisations.

Despite delays and funding cuts, hundreds of millions of pounds have already been distributed to the 23 GDE trusts and the first wave of 17 “fast follower” trusts since 2017. HSJ has been told that trusts already involved in the programme will continue to be funded through to 2020-21, even if future waves are dropped.

Since it was announced, the GDE programme has been overseen by NHS England’s deputy chief executive Matthew Swindells.

However, Mr Swindells is leaving NHS England in July and his responsibilities for IT strategy have already shifted to incoming NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould. One senior NHS source described the likelihood of Mr Gould keeping the programme running as “slim”.

To date, there has been no formal assessment of the GDE programme published, but many trusts involved have reported efficiency and care quality improvements associated with the IT investment.

Sources familiar with the programme that spoke to HSJ gave a more mixed report of the strategy to use digital blueprints to spread digital improvements across the wider NHS, with one senior source saying it has “not born fruit”. So far 34 digital blueprints have been published and are available free of charge to other trusts on request.

When approached for comment an NHS England spokesman said: “The NHS remains committed to the global digital exemplar programme that is helping our most digitally advanced hospitals go further and faster”.

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