Is the new NHS digital infrastructure plan achievable in just five years?

by Dr Graham Kelly | April 9, 2021 | 4 min read

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In 2019 the NHS Health and Infrastructure Plan (HIP) was released, marking the start of a five-year plan to deliver long-term investment in health infrastructure. Taking a digital first approach, the HIP will address the need for new hospital buildings, modernising the primary care estate, investing in new diagnostics and technology, and eradicating critical safety issues in NHS estates.

This new, strategic approach to improving hospitals and health infrastructure is an ambitious one, and I question the NHS’s readiness to deliver on some fronts.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP opened the HIP stating that this is the biggest and boldest hospital building programme in a generation. Giving the green light to more than 40 new hospital projects across the England, six getting the go-ahead immediately, and over 30 that could be built over the next decade. Committing £2.1bn capital investment for NHS health infrastructure.

The intent of the HIP cannot be questioned and the results it promises are to be admired, but like so many other government driven targets, the ability to meet them is very much dependent on the level of support and financial investment provided.

Typically, I’m coming at this from the technology side of things and excited about the fact the NHS is on the cusp of the largest digital investment plan it has possibly ever seen. This is no longer just about better bricks and mortar, it is about better digital information management and estate planning at operational level.

We need to get to the point where the running of NHS buildings just happens – a seamless process in the background to create a better experience for clinicians and patients.

But before we can get to this point, we need to get the basics right before any digital transformation can take place. Any such action on a large scale needs a strong robust digital framework to enable it to work. Currently the NHS does not have the ability or capability to deliver on all of these new infrastructure services, particularly as each individual NHS Trust across England is operating to their own agenda and budget.

Digital Enabling

Whilst the HIP promises a new strategy to make NHS infrastructure fit for the future, my worry is that a lot of the base functions needed to pull all of these ideas together are not fully functional yet. For this to happened we recommend three core stages of activity are needed: enable, value-add and enrich.

First we need to start by getting the basics right, and to do this we need enablers. From this stage we would progress to add clinical value or value-add, followed by the awesome new tech which will mature, allowing implementation at the right time, this is the enricher stage. This final stage is more about the systems and the processes and how we utilise digital technologies such as asset optimisation, smart scheduling and digital wayfinding.

This is understandable as this is where they see the difference in the new hospital, but they need support in understanding that BIM (digital framework) and IT infrastructure are just as important as they set the boundaries/capabilities of the system. How do you have a smart room booking system without consistent reliable room data? This is absolutely critical and needs to start from the briefing phase.

At BIM Academy we see ourselves as being able to support and have been helping Trusts to plan, procure and deliver their HIP projects by saving time and reducing risk, waste and re-work.

The key message is that we need to support Trusts in defining the enablers properly from the start of the project so that the foundations are in place to install the value-add elements and eventually the enrichers.

We have been working on several large hospital and NHS estates projects. For one such project we supported the developed of a comprehensive 3D digital information model that was used to analyse, optimise and coordinate the design, and accurately specify the offsite manufactured panels that made up the entire external building envelope, resulting in significant productivity gains and programme reductions. The planned 30-month construction programme was shortened by six months as a result of the digital construction methodologies we applied.

In an ideal world, all Trusts have the ability to realise their digital transformation, we just need to ensure the digital foundations are first laid out, educating Trusts in digital methodologies to apply to their estate management and digital infrastructure future as promised in the HIP.

For further details on our work with NHS Trusts, contact me directly at [email protected].