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NHS Digital chief calls for stronger emphasis on social care

16/03/22
Simon Bolton
Image source: NHS Digital

The interim chief executive of NHS Digital has said there is a need to pay more attention to the needs of social care in furthering its digital integration with healthcare in England.

Simon Bolton, who is also interim CIO of NHS England and Improvement (NHSEI), was speaking at the Digital Health Rewired conference in London.

Emphasising that it was a personal opinion, not a statement of policy, he responded to questions on where social care fits into the national plans by saying: “I think this needs to be worked through, because at the moment the link between healthcare and social care in digital is really unclear and the models are massively different.

“We have much more corporate capability in healthcare, while in social care there are lots of smaller organisations who are typically, but not always, less digitally enabled.”

He attached some significance to the fact that efforts to join up the systems of the two sides are now being led by the NHSEI, the title of which emphasises health but not social care.

“I think that’s problematic,” he said. “We need to work out the role of NHSEI England in social care, because we absolutely have to join up systems.”

Healthcare mandate

He added: “NHS Digital does what it says on the tin. That’s the problem, our mandate has been primarily around the National Health Service, but we all know that the services we need are not just about healthcare, it’s about social care as well, and we have to find a way of joining it up.

“I think politicians are talking about this but what we need is real action.”

Bolton’s comments at a time when NHS Digital is scheduled to be absorbed within the transformation directorate of NHSEI.

They also reflect repeated observations that local authorities and social care providers are usually expected to follow a lead set by the NHS in how to join up digital systems.

He pointed out that social care is delivered by local authorities under a different funding model to the NHS – one which is under extreme pressure – and suggested there is a need for change.

“The models are massively different and if we are going to do social care right I think we need new models of funding.”

Dual needs

He supported this by pointing out that older people in particular often need social as well as healthcare and the system has to understand their needs through the lifecycle of care.

In his presentation, Bolton also highlighted priorities of NHS Digital and NHSEI, including a need to focus on the really important tasks amid a wide range of issues that they are being asked to address.

He said the key elements of this should be concentrating on supporting the workforce, meeting the challenge of healthcare inequalities, and helping to fill the digital skills gaps in the healthcare sector.

He also suggested there is scope for the central organisations to use their spending power to get better deals from suppliers for the whole sector.

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