Will health benefit from Hancock’s wealth of tech expertise?

By Alice Whittingdale

Friday 28th September

Ahead of next week’s Conservative Party Conference, Pagefield’s newest recruit, Alice Whittingdale, outlines what to expect from the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock. Will his pledges for apps, algorithms and artificial intelligence be enough to secure the much needed fundamental change for the NHS?

Despite only being in the job for three months, Matt Hancock is already being hailed as something of a maverick as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. In particular, he has drawn interest for his recent announcements on the treatment of NHS staff and a new system of insurance for the elderly.

Hancock has one of the busiest schedules of any minister at this year’s conference as he attempts to leverage his new platform and raise his profile within the party. But it is a difficult path ahead.

The June reshuffle saw Hancock move from one of the most popular positions in Cabinet to perhaps the one most fraught with risk. Replacing the longest-serving Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, means there are big questions around how Hancock can differentiate himself from his controversial predecessor.

In his first speech as Health Secretary, Hancock shed some light on his approach. He said that the NHS will become “the most advanced health system in the world”. Whereas Hunt prioritised patient safety, Hancock plans to make his mark with technology.

The new Secretary has promised to invest £412m towards using technology to improve care and reduce staff workloads. This would be supplemented by a further £75m to replace paper-based systems with electronic systems, an unfinished Hunt commitment.

Doctors and health officials have responded warmly to Hancock’s proposals, saying the reforms are “long overdue”. This is not surprising given a recent study found that hospitals still rely on archaic fax machines and 10-year old computers, however the Department’s challenges are more than technological.

When it comes to tech, Hancock has form. Previously as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), he dedicated himself to topics like AI and computing. He famously even devised his own app for his constituents.

That said, Hancock’s new brief will be much tougher than DCMS. Crucially, he will have to imbue new approaches into an established, sprawling system. Stretched staff will be expected to learn new technologies and ways of working.

Furthermore, technology itself is not a panacea for the NHS’ ills. Too much emphasis on its remedial power could dilute the importance of basic infrastructure and staffing. Already, Hancock has received scrutiny from his opponent Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, for neglecting patient safety and waiting lists in his proposals.

One thing Hancock does have, however, is the funding that Hunt secured. Although the 3.4% annual boost has been widely appreciated, it does fall short of the 4% extra figure that an independent report has suggested the NHS needs. This means that the administration of the funding will be one of the Health Secretary’s most important responsibilities, having already targeted technology as one of his major priorities, there will be pressure for Hancock to detail how the extra funding will be spent in other areas in order to guarantee its value for money and create fundamental change.

Next week’s Conservative Party Conference will be a big test of whether Hancock is able to elaborate on his initial pledges and respond to early criticism and scrutiny. Apps, algorithms and artificial intelligence have the potential to relieve time pressures and drive down costs, thus preventing the health system crises that so often arise in the Winter months. With his forward-thinking and modernising-mindset, Hancock could be one to watch next week.

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