ExCeL London |  24 - 25 April 2024

22 Mar 2024

The Spring Budget: £3.4 billion extra investment in NHS digitisation met with mixed reviews

On 6th March, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt delivered the UK Spring Budget, highlighting the UK Government’s fiscal plans for 2024-25. While there were a range of announcements that will directly impact the NHS, a key inclusion was £3.4 billion extra investment in NHS digitisation. This substantial injection of funds has been met with mixed reviews, as scepticism lingers regarding the long-term sustainability of NHS funding and the effectiveness of digital transformation initiatives.

The former Health and Social Care Secretary’s announcement encompasses a £2.5 billion day-to-day funding boost for the fiscal year 2024/25, signifying a commitment to fortifying the NHS's operational capabilities alongside its digital transformation endeavours. However, this notably comes after national funds for frontline digitisation were slashed last year as NHS England was told to claw back £1 billion pounds of costs of strike action, as Digital Health reported in November 2023 [ https://www.digitalhealth.net/2023/11/frontline-digitisation-funds-diverted-to-cover-industrial-action-costs/]

According to the Treasury, the budget is planned to be used in “scaling up existing use of AI and ensuring all NHS staff are equipped with modern computing technology”, upgrading over 100 MRI scanners with AI, and ensuring all NHS Trusts operate with electronic patient records by March 2026, the Treasury said.

Equally, other funds will be used in leveraging AI for back back-office process automations, such as “automating the writing and clinical coding of notes, discharge summaries and GP letters”. This suggesting coming from the Treasury following a pilot initiative in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital that had already found that AI “can reduce time spent on discharge summaries by more than 50%”.

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, lauded the announcement, underscoring the imperative of addressing antiquated IT infrastructure as a barrier to NHS productivity. She remarked, "The announcement of £3.4 billion capital investment over three years is a welcome first step to increasing efficiency."

Likewise, Sir Julian Hartley, Chief Executive of NHS Providers, welcomed the continuation of yearly increases to day-to-day public sector spending. However, he notably referred to this investment as merely a “temporary respite” and urged the Chancellor to go further:

“Leaders across the NHS want nothing more than to provide high-quality patient care and improved services,” he said. “But to do this, they need to see long-term, multi-year investment in the health service which allows health leaders to plan for the future instead of this stop-start approach to NHS funding which leaves them constantly worrying about budget cuts followed by quick-fix, short-term funding announcements.”

“They will be pleased though, that the chancellor has finally heard their calls for more investment in digital and technology in the NHS, which has the potential to transform healthcare for patients, improve access to services and free up staff time.”

With the NHS being complicated organisation with disparate technology and an intricate web of legacy systems, the investment’s ability to deliver has been pulled into question. Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer echoed these sentiments in the House of Commons, underscoring the imperative of tangible results from digital investments. Past pledges to achieve a paperless NHS by 2018 and ensure electronic patient records in all hospital trusts by 2025 have encountered setbacks, casting doubt on the achievability of current objectives.

RCN General Secretary and Chief executive Professor Pat Cullen highlighted concerns about the Chancellor’s plans surrounding his various NHS related announcements, including the 2p reduction on national insurance, on top of the 2p reduction he made in the autumn. Professor Cullen remarks, "The public do not back his agenda. They want the health service turned around more than they support tax reduction." Expressing scepticism about the effectiveness of digitisation efforts without adequate staffing, Professor Cullen adds, "Technology is transformative in healthcare but you still need enough staff to use it, yet the chancellor did not face up to his NHS workforce plan now heading in the wrong direction."

Clearly, despite the intended benefits, concerns persist about the broader underfunding of the NHS and the potential limitations of digital investments. While the £3.4 billion investment represents a significant allocation, doubts remain about its adequacy in addressing deep-seated financial challenges and systemic issues within the healthcare system.


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