The next general election – can we keep the public pound on NHS IT?

Scotland’s referendum may have kept journalists busy for the first few weeks of September, but, with a decision now reached, NHS funding in England has already returned to the mainstay of national headlines.

It is now party conference season and Labour leader Ed Miliband has set out a vision to raise an extra £2.5bn for the NHS through a new mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance and additional taxation on the tobacco industry.

With a general election now looming in 2015, health and social care spending will undoubtedly stay in the political and media spotlight. With this in mind, the campaign to keep channelling NHS money into one particular and crucial area is already building momentum – that of information and technology.

It was fascinating to see politics make a direct appearance at the annual Healthcare Efficiency Through Technology (HETT) conference in London this week. Both Tim Kelsey, the national director for patients and information at NHS England and Kingsley Manning, the chair of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, said that the impending election meant it was now the time to robustly argue the case for technology in healthcare.

Despite a very fair level of investment in NHS IT to date, the last decade had shown a somewhat variable history when it comes to successes and failures, with shortcomings of multi-billion pound investments highly visible in the public eye.

But, as many speakers at HETT emphasised, the prize of continued investment in IT is too great to ignore if the NHS is to seize its chance to reduce some of the 20,000 avoidable deaths in England, deliver safer care, redesign services and save money.

In fact, as much as NHS leaders may welcome Miliband’s proposed £2.5bn budget increase, the question of investment in technology and its power to help the NHS improve care and achieve efficiencies, could be a far greater matter for concern.

So just how can we justify the case for technology? How can we get politicians and public onside before the polling stations open next year?

One prominent chief clinical information officer (CCIO) raised a key point during the keynote session, posing the thought on whether there could be a new process or capability within the NHS to measure the effectiveness of new technologies and fundamentally whether they do allow clinicians to deliver improved outcomes for patients. It was an interesting idea that echoed throughout the day as the need for understanding real outcomes from data and technology was picked up by clinicians, technologists, and NHS leaders alike.

Such a move could prove crucial in demonstrating a return on investment for the taxpayer and the patient. Delivering the promises of technology alone would no longer be enough – there would be a need to demonstrate and prove that care is genuinely improved as a result.

Of course, amid the doom and gloom stories that the media has a tendency to highlight, there are already many good stories to tell about what technology can do and what it is already doing for patients.

Placing the very laudable ideas of what is yet to come around the impact of big data and predictive analytics and to one side, we are already seeing a stream of stories of where innovative technology is having a very real and life-saving impact in the NHS, or at least we can see this within the healthcare technology arena.

More and more stories of what is being achieved must now be told and success must be measured in order to reach ever wider audiences. As we move into the next election, we cannot allow our politicians or the public to think on NHS technology spending as a waste, but as a means to sustain the NHS and improve it for the good of patients. The substance of these stories can then be scrutinised with the rigours of any new system, if and when it emerges, to test that right outcomes are realised.

As Kelsey and Manning pointed out this week – we have an opportunity to make the case for technology. Our window is now. Let the NHS tell the stories of its successes so that more can continue into the future.

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