NHS Digital and NHSX to be merged into NHS England

Move will accelerate transformation and enable consistent messaging, leaders of tech units say
Photo: Espen Klem/CC BY 2.0

By Sam Trendall

25 Nov 2021

The health service’s two national technology units, NHS Digital and NHSX, are to be merged into NHS England.

The overarching nationwide body – which also incorporates NHS Improvement, following a similar merger in 2019 – will incorporate the two tech organisations into its Transformation Directorate. NHSX will “evolve into the strategy function” of this directorate, while NHS Digital interim chief executive Simon Bolton will be appointed chief information officer for the whole of NHS England and Improvement.

Health Education England, which oversees the training of health-service workers across the country, is also being merged into NHS England.

The Department of Health and Social Care announced its intention to create an additional Digital Delivery Unit that will sit within a wider national NHS Delivery Unit.

The legislative powers needed to undertake the structural overhaul are contained in the health and care bill currently working its way through parliament.

The government claimed that the merger means that “digital transformation will be put at the heart of the NHS in England”.

NHSX was only created in 2019, having been launched by then health secretary Matt Hncock as a centralised unit to set NHS technology policies and strategy nationally. 

Matthew Gould, who has served as the organisation’s chief executive from the outset, said that it has always worked for digital and technology considerations to be better integrated into wider NHS objectives.

“For the past two years, NHSX has been making the case for digital transformation in the NHS, and for digital to be integrated within the NHS rather than kept in its own silo,” he said. “This reorganisation is the culmination of that campaign. It is an excellent step – a more coherent structure that will allow us to accelerate digital transformation across health and care."

Gould added: “It comes after two years in which NHSX, NHS Digital and the NHS and social care frontline have together made extraordinary progress – from allowing the NHS to move to remote working and consultations in the heat of the pandemic, to introducing virtual wards and remote monitoring of patients at home, to building the tech to underpin the vaccine rollout and the NHS Covid Pass.”

His counterpart at NHS Digital, Simon Bolton, also welcomed news of the merger in a statement in which he said that “the use of technology and data across health and care has been vital in managing the pandemic, and essential to supporting the frontline and ensuring care can continue to be delivered”.

Some hours later, he posted a thread on Twitter in which in he sought to respond to online “commentary about the merger”.

“The overhead of getting three separate organisations, each with their own brand, strategy and governance is simply too great to justify. In terms of agile it’s waste,” he said. “I don’t know a successful organisation anywhere in the world that would countenance having tech strategy and operational strategy set in different places. The NHS needs coherent, consistent leadership on tech if it is to survive and thrive. Feedback I get from the system is that, until now, our messaging is often not aligned and causes confusion and frustration.”

He added: “Lessons we learned from Covid showed that we make huge progress very quickly when we have policy, operations and tech teams working as a single team focused on delivering real outcomes. Just look at solutions delivered for vaccinations [and] Covid Pass. 

“Merging NHS Digital, NHSE and NHSX in itself doesn’t fix these problems, but it creates the conditions necessary for resolving them. Why now while the NHS is dealing with massive pressures? Because the NHS needs tight alignment between the operation and tech now more than ever so it can deliver real value – improved outcome – quickly.”

According to its most recent annual accounts, NHS has a little over 2,600 full-time staff; NHSX brings with it more than 500 employees.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared.

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