After another long wait, the second round of NHS Technology Fund has finally been announced, this time to reflect the government’s key priorities of enabling information to flow across care settings, and so aptly named the Integrated Digital Care Fund.
The new fund follows the initial announcement one year ago by the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt and medical director of NHS England, Sir Bruce Keogh, that £260m would be ploughed into NHS IT in the form of the Safer Hospitals, Safer Wards Technology Fund. In September, this was followed by the announcement of an additional £250m to be added to the fund – increasing its total value to over £500m. A relatively substantial amount when adding matched funding.
So what is new about this fund?
It appears that there is, at least on the surface, greater opportunity for suppliers. During a recent speech, Beverly Bryant, the director of strategic systems and technology at NHS England, said she is looking to industry to help create the business case for integration in the context of delivering on patient safety, patient experience and efficiency. She said that NHS England and the Department of Health’s role is about creating seed funding to incentivise buyers and suppliers of technology. Despite NHS England being responsible for the delivery, administration and governance of the fund to facilitate the widespread adoption of modern, safe standards of electronic record-keeping, Bryant said she did not want to dictate what happens on a micro level, but to set the landscape and encourage providers and industry to ‘play together.’
Another key differentiator is that organisations that are applying have to name the supplier that they are working with to gain business case approval for their solution. However, they will not be able to bid for more money for projects that they won last year and they will not be able to get funding for projects that are being supported in other ways, such as through the remaining period of the National Programme for IT.
Furthermore, and slightly underplayed among the news coverage, is that the eligibility criteria has been widened to include local authorities and community health trusts to encourage projects that aim to integrate patient records across different providers. However, we wait to see how well the availability of the fund will be communicated to such organisations and therefore how many apply. It’s likely to be down to suppliers to make local authorities aware of the opportunities.
Unfortunately, one of the key similarities to the first round of tech fund that remains is the limited timeframe that organisations have to apply, with just two months in total to get their applications in. Around £60m of the last fund was not allocated – and has now been lost out of the NHS – because of tight deadlines and HM Treasury demands for greater return on investment than some projects managed to demonstrate. Arguably, the increased focus on integrated digital records with the emphasis on supporting information flows across organisational boundaries, is even more complex and will require even more time to pull business cases together.