The UK must seize the prize of becoming one of the top digital health and social care systems and economies on the planet. To do so requires intense, unparalleled, and scaled-up collaboration between all the actors in the system, including universities, research funders, public health bodies, technology brokers and government.

Global technology firms with deep pockets and billions of customers are seeking to enter and disrupt the market, and to compete, players in the UK must be world-class at the art and science of partnering.

Over two years ago, the National Centre for Universities and Business assembled experts and practitioners to reflect on the core challenges and recommend potential solutions. Led by Beverley Bryant, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, and John Jeans, the Task Force commissioned original research and cast the net wide for other types of evidence to reach the conclusions and recommendations The Human Factor, its final report.

Health and care innovators, including those in universities, are constantly producing fresh, indeed revolutionary thinking in software, connected technologies, user-interface, process, and information systems. And yet, adoption and dissemination has been fitful at best and digital innovation has not delivered the transformational, system-wide change necessary to drive the UK to the top of the league, as envisaged by the UK Government’s life-science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector deals. There are fundamental problems to non-adoption, scaling failures, and wasted investment in digital health and care.

As Oxford University’s Professor Trish Greenhalgh points out:

“Planners and policymakers have often been overly focused on technologies and distracted by simplistic models and metaphors of technology adoption by individuals (e.g. ‘tipping point’). They have paid scant attention to the dynamic socio-technical system into which new technologies and care practices must become embedded.” 

At the heart of a successful digital health and care economy will be people not digits. Success and failure will come from the constant interplay of patients, consumers, users, practitioners, policy-makers, educators, researchers, financiers, developers, carers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, digital Uncle Tom Cobley and all. To lose sight of The Human Factor, is to lose sight of both the greatest barriers and the biggest prize.

The Task Force made 9 conclusions and recommendations:

  1. Primary and ancillary health and care professionals, as well as patients, consumers, and users lack the digital education and skills to drive system-wide change. Therefore, the UK needs an integrated campaign for digital health and care skills.
  2. Implementation of successful change in digital health and care is complex, interrelated and most often fails if design and user-experience are not at the heart of the project, and where the human factor is overlooked in favour of technology push. User-centred design must be at the heart of digital health and care.
  3. There is an enormous gap between the digital skills of the health and care workforce and the present and future needs of the system, and universities must play a vital role in training and upskilling. The skills challenge needs scaled-up solutions and rapid take-up. These might include a digital literacy test for all health and care professionals, major curriculum review in medical schools, social care courses, and allied professional education to embed digital and data literacy and skills, and potentially mandated continuous professional development in digital.
  4. Data protection has taken precedence over data sharing in health and care. The health and care system must create an environment where sharing data is as vital as protecting it.
  5. There is still a real gap in the research funding system for health and care technologies, particularly ones that try to grapple with the complexity of health and care systems. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and National Institute for Health Research should work together on multi-disciplinary research programmes on digital health and care.
  6. We are concerned about the level and extent of specialist digital health and care knowledge amongst knowledge-exchange professionals, and across the research base. We strongly recommend that UKRI and universities establish well-funded mechanisms for continued and integrated innovation in digital health and social care, and translation into business.
  7. Health and social care are marked by a lack of risk-taking – and risk-takers – in procurement. NHS business-oriented programmes must be more closely aligned with universities and business schools.
  8. Entrepreneurs (including university spin-outs and start-ups), and businesses continue to struggle to build digital heath businesses in the UK, and the overall barriers for adoption discriminate against players with limited resources to ‘take on the system’. Guided by good system and user-design, the NHS and care system should review approaches to risk and create more room for agility. This requires small amounts of funding that can be given to companies quickly, but also a recognised success route that leads to more support and assistance in marketing to the rest of the NHS.
  9. Non-health and care digital products and services – such as videogames – show considerable, but largely unrealised potential in the UK’s health and social care system. The Department of Health, universities, NHS, and Innovate UK should collaborate with interactive media and games trade associations to establish a standing network of therapeutic specialists and commercial developers.

The digital health of the nation is absolutely pivotal to the UK’s future and we look forward to working with a broad range of actors to help bring it about.


David Docherty is CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB)