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Closing the NHS demand-supply gap: reasons for optimism

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We all know the NHS has the toughest of jobs ahead, balancing rising patient demand with system efficiencies. Its Five Year Forward Plan identified a £30 billion shortfall by 2020; and Digital Health News recently revealed that NHS England's current bid for Treasury funding is based on the service investing £7 billion in ICT alone (on electronic health records, digital services and data) that in turn will deliver somewhere between £8 and £13 billion in savings in the years ahead.

While funding talks are no doubt unflinching on both sides, there is some ground for optimism over the NHS' ability to reduce the predicted 2020 shortfall - and improve baseline care by spending more time with patients.

How so? One unsung story is how ICT-driven improvements are quietly turning round local NHS organisations' efficiency and responsiveness. The Digital Health News story also revealed that NHS ICT expenditure as a percentage of total spend is running at 3.3%, exceeded only by Finland among the Western countries compared by NHS England's research.

Though they will never make the headlines, seismic changes are taking place quietly around the country by this sustained level of investment and smarter integration. Here are several examples:

First, local NHS organisations are now being plugged into the N3 network, enabling them to uprate services with better, more resilient infrastructures. In one case, a group of over 50 NHS hospital trusts and partner organisations is transforming its radiology and imaging reporting services because the group's teleradiology services supplier now has a reliable, fast N3 network connection and ICT accessed through Redcentric's infrastructure services.

Second, in contrast to the previous 'oligopoly' of providers, NHS technology modernisation is being delivered by multiple expert ICT integrators with the capabilities (HSCIC accreditation, PSN board membership, etc.) to not only support the big national providers but also the ability to act as flexible partners to niche ISVs and startups in emerging areas like Big Data and mobile care apps.  These smaller firms are the catalysts for data-driven care, but in the past have often struggled to bring their innovations into NHS' buyers' thinking, and still less scale their services effectively.

Third, given the NHS and its main suppliers' more pragmatic approaches to technology buying and delivery, it is easier to meet NHS buyers' needs whatever point a trust or CCG has reached on its journey to the Cloud.

As a result, these expert suppliers are providing local NHS organisations with hybrids of on premise and virtualised ICT that can transform clinicians' responsiveness and decision-making. The teaching hospital with campus-wide wireless communications and Cloud-based patient records isn't only more efficient, its staff can use new clinical applications and dispense medicines when mobile, working across different wards: in a nutshell, doctors are getting more time with patients.

Despite the considerable challenges ahead, there are grounds for optimism. The NHS can transform its patient care and cost with sustained investment and working with the right partners.

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