NHS must rise to technology challenge and catch up with other industries, says The King's Fund

The NHS is failing to make it more convenient for the public to receive the care they need, by not making use of everyday technology and innovation that consumers would welcome, say two new reports published today by The King's Fund.

The reports argue the NHS has been slow to adopt technologies that are already in widespread use elsewhere, such as in the financial services and travel industries. Even well-established technologies, such as email and the internet, are not being used routinely in the NHS to help patients - for example, with booking GP appointments, receiving routine test results, viewing medical records or having online consultations. By embedding everyday technology into its services and introducing more advanced technologies, the NHS could improve the patient experience, deliver better clinical outcomes and save money.

One of the reports, Technology in the NHS, outlines a vision of health care over the next decade in which technology transforms the way patients receive care and interact with the NHS. The vision includes everyday technologies, such as using email to communicate with doctors, to more advanced technologies such as video-conferencing for medical consultations and ‘virtual’ visiting by friends and family.

Technology in the NHS co-author Alasdair Liddell, senior associate at The King's Fund, said:

'Consumers are accustomed to using technology in their daily lives – 17 million people bank online and 55 per cent of internet users book their holidays online. Yet new technologies, and even basic ones, are not embedded in the health service. Consumers are increasingly expecting to use technology in their health care, and technology companies such as Google and Intel are responding to this demand. The NHS must commit to improving the patient experience - this will require an understanding of why useful technology is not being adopted and a determination to overcome these barriers.’

Lord Darzi's review of the NHS, published in July, makes innovation and technology a priority for the health service - strategic health authorities (SHAs) now have a legal duty to promote innovation, while a new Health Innovation Council will champion innovation for the NHS. But The King's Fund reports warn that much needs to be done to translate Lord Darzi's vision into reality. The main barriers restricting the take-up of new technologies include

  • Lack of resources – a lack of funding to invest in new technology, coupled with a lack of staff has restricted the implementation of new technologies.
  • Lack of incentives – there are few incentives in place to encourage clinicians to adopt new technologies and change the way patients receive their care – for example, there is no incentive to establish direct email access between patients and their GPs.
  • Lack of leadership – the Department of Health has failed to provide clear, consistent and sustained leadership on the use of technology in the NHS. This is reflected in the number of different organisations with an innovation or technology remit, without any clarity about who is responsible for what.

Technology in the NHS makes a number of specific recommendations for increasing the uptake of new technologies in the NHS, such as:

  • Better communication with patients – the NHS must respond to patient demand for the use of technology in health care. Managers and clinicians should target patients most likely to embrace new technologies initially, while at the same time supporting those who are less IT literate with more conventional methods.
  • Stronger national leadership – the DH must create a culture and climate that encourages innovation and technology adoption within the NHS. It should also ensure the recommendations of the Health Innovation Council are implemented; co-ordinate the activities of the various national bodies and agencies that have a technology remit; and make sure technology is considered an integral part of policy developments within the DH.
  • Strengthening the NHS/industry partnership – the NHS should work more closely with industry to improve the technology procurement process. This includes working with technology companies to help them build business cases for their products.
  • NICE – the technology assessments carried out by NICE should extend beyond a focus on drugs to innovation more generally and they should be increased and accelerated so that technologies from successful trials can be rolled out more quickly. More informal mechanisms are required for assessing the costs, benefits and risks of new technologies.

The second report published today, Engaging Patients in Their Health, presents discussions from an expert seminar The King’s Fund hosted with the Leeds Castle Foundation to raise awareness of the challenges facing the NHS in achieving the fully engaged scenario outlined by Sir Derek Wanless in his 2002 report for the government on how to secure good health. Experts discussed the changing attitudes and expectations of patients, the uptake of technology in the NHS and how individuals use health services.

The report also concludes that the use of technology is significantly underdeveloped and poorly deployed in the NHS. The report acknowledges that access to general health information via the internet is beginning to change the balance of power between doctors and patients but that local health trusts could transform the way patients interact with the NHS by making greater use of new technologies.

The King’s Fund’s Director of Policy Anna Dixon said:

'There are information technologies in most homes and pockets that could transform health care and the way it is delivered. These are not futuristic, these are technologies we use day-to-day. But when it comes to our health care patients aren’t even able to use basic technologies - whether it’s using email to book GP appointments or using the internet to view our medical records online.

'This has to change. The patient of the future, especially people with chronic illnesses like diabetes, will demand the use of technologies that make it much easier and more convenient for them to receive the care and treatment they need. Professional attitudes will need to change and the NHS will need to rethink how it interacts with patients and redesigns services around the needs of patients. Progress has been slow so far but these two reports show the potential prize new technologies offer for both patients and the NHS in terms of better care and financial savings.'

Download both reports: Technology in the NHS: transforming the patient's experience of care and Engaging Patients in their Health: how the NHS needs to change

Notes to editors: 

  1. For further information or interviews, please contact The King’s Fund press office on 020 7307 2585, 020 7307 2632 or 020 7307 2581. An ISDN line is available for interviews on 020 7637 0185. Copies of both reports are available on request.
  2. Technology in the NHS: Transforming the patient’s experience of care was commissioned by The King’s Fund from a team of consultants from ?What If!, with expert advice from Alasdair Liddell, who is an associate of ?What If! and a senior associate at The King’s Fund, and invaluable support from NHS Direct. The report is based on a literature review; interviews with health, technology and futures experts; and a workshop with technology suppliers, clinicians and patient groups.
  3. ?What If! is the world’s largest independent innovation company. The global team of 300 innovators work with many of the world’s admired companies and government departments to innovate their people, products and services. ?What If! clients include AstraZeneca, Unilever, Channel 4, SK Telecoms, Coca-Cola Company, Samsung, Yahoo Cadbury Schweppes, Abbott, Shell, Nokia, BT, British Gas Business, The United Nations, Johnson & Johnson, Emap, Coors Brewers, Sainsbury’s, Boots and many UK government departments. For more information on ?What If! please contact Sejal Parekh, Head of External Communications, on 0207 535 8745 or sejalp@whatifinnovation.com
  4. For the last ten years NHS Direct has delivered 24-hour health advice and information through a range of innovative technologies.  NHS Direct has developed a national ICT infrastructure from which to deliver its 0845 4647 telephone advice and information service. Its website receives over 3 million visits each month. NHS Direct was the first public sector or healthcare service to embrace interactive digital TV technology with services now available on both Sky and Freeview.
  5. Engaging Patients in Their Health: How the NHS needs to change, edited by Anna Dixon, is the result of a summit The King’s Fund hosted with the Leeds Castle Foundation in May 2007 to raise awareness of the challenges for the NHS and the government in achieving the fully engaged scenario outlined by Sir Derek Wanless in his 2002 report for HM Treasury on how to secure good health. The summit heard from experts in health, economics, government and patient relations and explored the concept of the patient as a consumer, the use of technology and promoting healthy citizenship.
  6. The King’s Fund seeks to understand how the health system in England can be improved. Using that insight, we help to shape policy, transform services and bring about behaviour change. Our work includes research, analysis, leadership development and service improvement. We also offer a wide range of resources to help everyone working in health to share knowledge, learning and ideas.