Last July, UK National Health Service (NHS) launched a new unit called NHSX with the hope to digitally transform the over 70-year-old free public health system so that both staff and patients can benefit from the latest technology. The press release said NHSX shall assume a diverse set of responsibilities including drafting technology-related healthcare policy; establishing new standards; reforming procurement; enhancing digital skills, ensuring new technologies are trustworthy, safe and so on.

Headed by Chief Executive Officer Matthew Gould, who used to be a British diplomat to Israel and has been pushing for science and technology initiatives between the two countries, NHSX pledged to promote collaborations across NHS departments and other regions. With digital and data specialists working 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 as one of its pioneering projects.

Achievements in the inaugural year

So, one year has gone, what has NHSX achieved thus far and how much of its promise has been delivered? Gould wrote in his blog post that “the pandemic has accelerated – to a remarkable degree – the need for the frontline to adopt and adapt digital technologies… NHSX has been part of making that happen”.

Gould cited NHSX had sourced more than 40,000 laptops at the peak of COVID-19 for clinicians and provide them with basic guidance on the legal framework governing the use of personal healthcare data, so that they can confidently work from home. The unit also negotiated with telecommunication providers for better connectivity in care homes and data packages for frontline NHS staff, so that they can collect data and insights that will be useful to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In fact, six months after NHSX establishment, Gould had already written a mini progress report. He highlighted some of the programs that were already on the flight before the unit launch and also others such as the £140 million artificial intelligence (AI) award set up this January to encourage companies to bring forward their novel plans that demonstrate potential to save lives; enhance delivery of care, and relieve the burden of NHS staff.

Gould also wrote about the first wave of Digital Aspirant programme, took place in March, whereby 23 NHS Trusts will share a total of £28 million to support their investments in technologies that enhance care. Other specific projects include the NHS App that has achieved 1.9 million logins and more than 107,000 appointments made. Also, NHSX partnered with NHS Digital to facilitate more digital services. In spite so, most NHSX plans remained in aspiration stage.

Most plans remained in aspiration stage

For example, setting a sensible parameter for the use of clinical data. Controversial data analytics company Palantir is believed to have just secured a £1 million contract to assist NHS England to leverage on technology for a quick relief to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. The contract is a 4-month extension of the previous one which focused on the building of new virtual tools that help to direct supplies to infection hotspots and hospitals with greatest needs. Palantir will continue to work closely with NHSX but its previous involvement with Cambridge Analytica is believed to be putting sensitive healthcare data at privacy and security risks.

Moreover, there was also no concrete plan on how NHSX would manage its relationship with fellow suppliers or developers, so that concern cited above can be avoided and new tools are truly meeting clinical demands and standards. Besides, NHSX was part of the effort to develop NHS very own COVID-19 contact tracing app. However, the plan has to be abandoned this June after spending £11.8 million on development and testing it on the Isle of Wight because of accuracy and privacy concerns.

Early on, NHSX was also scrutinized for a job advert on social media platform which explicitly said Black and Ethnic Minority applicants are excluded in the job specifications. Last but not least, the AI lab due to open this April and to be run by NHSX is believed to be delayed in view of the pandemic. All these show that real change and improvements are still on their way and hopefully over the next 365 days, some of them will be realized.


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.