The NHS must use extra funds to lead a ‘technological revolution’ in order to ‘weather the storm’ of the biggest challenge to face the health service in 70 years, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on the 28th of May.

He goes on to warn against putting heads in the sand and relying on ad hoc sticking plaster solutions, stressing instead that any cash injections must be used to fund ‘ambitious’ ideas that will ‘lead a revolution worldwide’ in regards to using technology in healthcare.

How timely, given the publication the week before of the National Centre for Universities and Business’ (NCUB) report on exactly that challenge.

The Human Factor: Driving digital solutions for 21st Century Health and Care is already one step ahead of Mr Hunt, articulating clearly the challenge of making that happen as well as recommending ways of taking advantage of the huge potential of digital solutions.

But there is a clear warning.

As the report says, 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.

Government innovation policies seem often to imply a relatively simple hand-over from innovators to technology-savvy commissioners and purchasers, who in turn pass the wizardry onto willing patients, users, and consumers. Innovation seldom works that way, even in the most perfectly aligned consumer markets.

Digital breakthroughs are marked by failure, feedback, iterations and abandonment, before another drive forward. Successful innovators stay successful by constant upgrades, being agile, and the creative destruction of their own products and services. There is a fundamental challenge in the cultural and economic models of technology and software providers, who are naturally drawn to rapid development, deployment, and iteration, and health and care systems which are necessarily slow, deliberative, and heavily regulated.

As a believer in the power of design thinking and design as two of the most important catalysts for change I’m delighted to see that both play an important part in the recommendations for more effective future adoption and integration of digital solutions for the future.

The report goes on to say that 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 managers and all. To lose sight of The Human Factor – both the challenges and opportunities – is to lose sight of both the greatest barriers and the biggest prize.

The four fundamentals of effective design thinking practice are adopting a user-focused approach, constant, appropriate, iteration, making things as visual as possible and a collaborative, open innovation approach.

The report recognises this and recommends that user-centred design must be at the heart of digital health and care – the implementation of successful change in digital health and care is complex, inter-related 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.

The NCUB report itself follows hotly on the heels of a RSA report, Unlocking the Creative Potential of 21st Century Industry, which sets out clear recommendations, many of which are reflected in the NCUB report, on creating the conditions for design to flourish in UK business.

The critical thing from my perspective is that both reports – and the NCUB report very explicitly – are clear that digital, per se, is not the answer. Rather it is how, by focusing on the challenges, we can harness digital to help provide the solutions.

Interestingly, look at the ‘70 ideas to save the NHS’ published in the Telegraph on Monday the 28th and how many of them have come from a real user focus.

So to go back to what Mr Hunt said, at heart we need to focus on changes in behaviour, cultures and systems.

As the NCUB report says in no uncertain terms – we are reflecting on a new revolution in health and care supported by digital solutions, rather than 21st century digital health and care.

By John Mathers, Director of Design, British Design Fund