Digitising the NHS: The Growing Demand for 21st Century Healthcare

The NHS plans to invest nearly £13bn into transforming their service. What could your business learn from their digital transformation? We dive into the NHS Interim People Plan and discuss their plans to recruit, retain and develop staff to meet the rapidly growing demand for 21st-century healthcare. 

Following the publication of the NHS Long Term Plan, the NHS has published its  Interim People Plan this month. 

The plan (running to 74 pages) outlines how the NHS will need to recruit, retain and develop staff to meet the rapidly growing demand for 21st-century healthcare. And, according to “official estimates” seen by HSJ, officials have estimated it will cost between £10.9bn and £12.9bn to support the long term plan.

It’s a colossal investment, and the exact cost won’t be confirmed until the Government’s Spending Review later this year. However, there are many initiatives to give cause for early excitement – including plans make use of the Apprenticeship Levy to upskill existing staff and attract new talent.

Making digitisation a priority

Digitisation of all NHS providers is reported to have been identified as the biggest area earmarked for investment at £3bn, with this process potentially lasting until 2024.

Among the efforts to digitise the NHS is the expansion of the NHS Digital Academy, as well as new intensive digital skills training, which is to be provided to boards and senior leaders. There is also an ambition to create a pipeline of digital experts in the NHS.

According to HSJ, this is followed by the cost of making improvements to IT infrastructure, priced at between £2.2bn and £3bn. Meanwhile, data-gathering and analytics are expected to cost between £1.4bn and £2bn.

Ben Moody, head of health and social care at techUK, told Digital Health News: “The government already committed £4.2 billion for NHS technology in 2016 and when you consider the scale of the NHS – 1 million patients every 36 hours; 1.8 million employees and a Department of Health and Social Care budget in excess of £120 billion – it actually seems conservative compared to the percentage of revenue other large organisations spend on digitisation.”

He adds: “a step change in both funding and approach to digitisation is needed just to get the NHS on a level playing field with other industries.”

Tech and automation will create new opportunities

The promise of technology is not what it does, but what it enables you to do. And with rapid advancements of automation and AI, this brings with it the potential for new technology to automate tasks. 

For the NHS, this could mean freeing up valuable time for health professionals, enabling them to focus on the high-value activities in which they have specialist skills and training. 

According to the Interim Plan, scientific and technological developments including genomics, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will “significantly influence how care is delivered in the NHS in the future”, creating “significant opportunities to help healthcare teams work more productively, releasing more time for care, helping provide fulfilling working lives and enabling every NHS pound to go further in improving access to – and quality of – care.”

However, as we’ve seen across other industries, it’s not just specialists who will benefit from digitisation and dedicated training. There is also a growing need for increased digitisation of back-office roles, such as HR and L&D. 

The funding proposed in the Interim Plan will contribute to training non-technical members of staff, who will need to have a core level of digital ability, promising training centred in the processes they need to complete. 

Initiatives such as these will help make huge strides in the operation of the NHS and continue to move closer towards satisfying the growing demand for 21st-century healthcare.

Building a more adaptable workforce

Of course, if you want to benefit from technology, you have to change what you do.

But when lives (literally) depend upon your actions, and when ways of working have built up over decades and become intimately interwoven with how people think and act – as is the case with NHS organisations – changing what you do (or even wanting to change what you do) is really, really hard.

“Digital transformation has to grasp this nettle of changing people, how they think, how they act, how they act together (or not as the case may be), and then attach that to the digital possibilities,” comments Ben Rowland, Director of Government & Public Services at AVADO (and also the co-founder of Arch Apprentices).

To succeed, the NHS will not only have to overhaul the skills of their people – but also their culture. 

One of the main goals listed in the Interim Plan is “building a more adaptable workforce”. The NHS must now accelerate their efforts to create a more flexible and adaptive workforce, in order to help people “make the best use of their talents, as well as getting the most value from critical new roles”. 

According to their Interim Plan, this will mean “supporting and enabling health professionals to work in new ways that make better use of the full range of their skills.”

“We need to identify ways of building greater resilience into our future workforce plans, based on the principle of enabling people to develop new skills over the course of their career and enabling them to be deployed more flexibly to help employers address short-term supply challenges. We can do that by defining sets of skills-based competencies that can apply across different professional groups and by developing more advanced clinical roles.”

NHS Interim People Plan

“Building resilience and adaptability and changing culture means changing people — and as we at AVADO know from our global transformation programmes and our existing work in the NHS, changing people requires powerful programmes where they are supported and motivated over a long period of time. One-day workshops are no longer sufficient,” says Ben Rowland. “We are encouraged by the Interim Plan.”

Focus on talent and retention

“We know we can’t simply rely on doing things differently. We will also need steady year-on-year growth in the substantive clinical workforce,” the NHS state in the report

Without achieving this workforce growth, the NHS estimate that the overall vacancy rate in hospital and community health services could increase from 10% in 2018/19 to 15% in 2023/24.

In order to meet this goal, the NHS will scale its focus on talent acquisition, but also on retention: 

“It is essential that we continue to grow the medical workforce to address gaps in certain specialitie and regions and to deliver our vision for flexible working and training for doctors at all stages of their career. We must better value and retain our current doctors, whether they are just beginning their career, managing the challenge of the acute take, or have been a GP or consultant for twenty years.”

NHS Interim People Plan

These plans are already beginning to be addressed, seeing an increase in the number of undergraduate medical school places by 1,500, as well as the opening of five brand new medical schools across the UK.

What about the data skills gap?

To create a “modern, data-rich and digitally supported health and care service”, the NHS will need to attract the best technologists, informaticians and data scientists, skill sets that are sought-after in many industries. Furthermore, the report outlines the need for a “high-quality supply of digital leaders”, so that people “have the digital tools and understanding to meet their needs.”

However, the NHS will soon run into the problem that the rest of us are already facing: the growing data skills gap. 

The European Commission has warned that 346,000 more data scientists are needed by 2020. The demand for data scientists is certainly there, but the pipeline can’t keep up. So how will the NHS overcome this challenge?

Apprenticeships take a front seat

One key action this will counteract the skills gap is the NHS’ plans to use the Apprenticeship Levy to “support the drive to develop specialist talent”, as well as put in place mechanisms to “enhance the skills of existing staff”.

The Apprenticeship Levy will enable healthcare providers to use the funds to train existing staff. However, there are still some challenges with using the levy, including the fact it cannot be used to cover backfill costs. However, the NHS comment that “there is much more that we can do to use this opportunity to expand our workforce and enhance our skill mix.”

In addition to the financial incentive, and its role in bridging the skills gap, the focus on apprenticeships will also help create employment opportunities in local communities for school leavers, those with disabilities and those looking to switch career:

Apprenticeships will continue to be critical in attracting people to the NHS from less well-represented groups and supporting the development of new roles. They allow new recruits and existing staff to gain new skills and qualifications while working and they support better career progression.”

NHS Interim People Plan


There are many initiatives to be applauded in the Interim Plan. Here at Arch and AVADO, we are particularly excited about the renewed focus on upskilling and apprenticeships.

“Arch, AVADO’s apprenticeship division, has been delivering apprenticeships into the NHS for two years, and we can see the potential for this scaling,” says Ben Rowland. “We applaud the NHS’s decision to focus on apprenticeships as a tool to grow and empower their workforce.”

It will certainly be interesting to see how these plans develop into hiring and training at the NHS – and we look forward to seeing the results from the Spending Review, which will determine whether the NHS will receive the funding necessary to achieve these goals.

Arch Apprentices, part of AVADO Learning, is one of the leading providers of “new collar” apprenticeships into Government, the NHS and other public service organisations, with particular expertise in data, digital, HR, finance and management. 

Get in touch at solutions@avadolearning.com to find out more about how we can help NHS organisations transform their capabilities and mindsets.  

Caroline Koktvedgaard

Posted July 3, 2019