The health secretary says the NHS in England must become more human - but his technology plans are in for a rough ride
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has conceded that the British Medical Association and other health unions are unlikely to embrace his plans for a seven-day patient-centred NHS in England.
In Parliament last week he warned that the government is “prepared to impose a new contract if necessary”. The danger is that, if the conflict over seven-day working builds up into a full-blown confrontation, it will inevitably drag in other aspects of the new government’s plans for the NHS; especially some bold announcements involving technology.
Introducing his vision for a 21st century NHS, Hunt paid homage to the new book by David Cameron’s former policy guru Steve Hilton by saying NHS needed to become “more human”. But Hunt had his own catchphrase to deploy: “intelligent transparency”.
Attacking critics who he said accused the government of “running down the NHS” he said that since the transparency programme was introduced by the last government public confidence in the NHS in England has risen by 5%. By contrast, in Wales, which resisted this transparency, public satisfaction has fallen by 3%, he said.
Meanwhile, the proportion of those who think NHS care is safe increased by s7% and the proportion of those who think that they are treated with dignity and respect increased by 13%.
To build on this improvement, Hunt promised the publication of more data to enable “meaningful choice” in three new areas: maternity and, more problematically, care for people with complex long term conditions and end of life care. This will be taken further next March, when the NHS will publish statistics of avoidable deaths by hospital trust and ratings on the overall quality of care provided to different patient groups in every local health economy.
From next year, as part of the new electronic booking service, all GPs will be asked to tell patients the relevant Care Quality Commission rating and waiting time as well at the hospitals they can be referred to.
However, intelligent transparency is only a step towards what he called “Patient Power 2.0”. Technology is a critical element: within five years, electronic health records should be available seamlessly in every care setting.
“New medical devices will mean an ambulance arrives to pick us up not after a heart attack but before it - as they receive a signal sent from a mobile phone,” Hunt said.
Referring to an the oft-quoted line from a former chancellor of the exchequer that the NHS is the closest thing to a British national religion, Hunt described intelligent transparency as a “reformation moment” for the service.
This metaphor may be unwise: the religious reformation was accompanied by decades of warfare on an unprecedentedly vicious scale. In its latest attempt to invigorate the NHS’s adoption of IT-based change, nobody could accuse the government of picking the easy path.