Why the NHS under-investment in IT will cost both money and lives

September 27, 2018

Listening to the ‘Today’* programme on Radio 4 recently, our attention was drawn by an interview with Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. He was talking about the enormous benefit that the right technologies can offer the NHS if they are implemented effectively, not only in monitoring patients but also in using the aggregate data to better understand the progress of different diseases, so being able to treat them better.  In summary he said, implementing effective technologies could:

  • Relieve the pressure on clinicians
  • Make hospitals safer
  • Manage hospital care pathways better, due to better understanding of the likely outcomes for different courses of treatment and which patients to concentrate on.

Thus the use of technologies has the potential to make NHS care more efficient and effective and as a result make much better use of the NHS budgets. So it should stand to reason that the NHS must be investing in these technologies? Well you would think so wouldn’t you…

The real picture – chronic under-investment in IT

What proportion of NHS budgets would you imagine NHS hospitals spend on their IT?

In the US, the average figure is 5% of turnover, which is the amount we would advise our clients to consider spending to gain significant benefit from their IT investment.

In fact in the UK, the average spend on IT by NHS hospitals is around 1% – which as Sir John Bell said is a ‘Long Way’ from the investment required.

What happens when organisations under-invest in IT

  • Increased risk of cyber-attack – Lack of investment in up to date equipment, software, cybersecurity and training can contribute to the likelihood of coming under cyber-attack.   Could this have contributed to the number of cyber-attacks on the NHS over the 12-18 months, such as the ‘Wannacry’ ransomware attack?
  • Reduced innovation and therefore improvements – if you think of how technologies have advanced over the last 30 years it can sometimes be a bit mind boggling. Thirty years ago, computers weren’t on every desk, e mail was still new and barely used and the iPhone and iPad were probably not even a figment in the imagination of Steve Jobs. Our working lives have transformed over the years and so has the NHS.   In the future, AI, intelligent apps, augmented reality and more have the opportunity to transform all our lives – and transform the NHS, but if the investment is not made then the benefits that could be achieved won’t, leaving the NHS far behind their US and probably European counterparts.
  • Reduced efficiency – Investment in IT can help automate mundane tasks, as well as speed up other activities. For example, it takes a fraction of the time for a computer to analyse data, than it takes a person to do it.  This means that organisations including the NHS who do not invest in the right IT are less efficient than those that do.

A conundrum that needs solving for all our sakes

It is likely that IT budgets are currently limited due to the overall limits on the NHS budgets, and NHS trusts’ short-term priorities mean they feel they have to put whatever money they have into what they see as more pressing areas. With many NHS trusts over budget as it is, finding money for IT potentially falls to the bottom of the pile.

This is the irony of the NHS situation.  By failing to invest more into IT, they are losing the opportunity to massively increase their effectiveness and efficiency and in doing so save money and lives. They are also leaving themselves more open to cyber-attack and the disruption this causes for hospitals and patients.  For all our sakes, we hope an answer is found to this conundrum or we fear the NHS will not be able to meet demands for patient care in the future.

*Referenced interview can be found 52 minutes into the programme. You will need to log into the BBC iPlayer to listen to it.