The NHS is presently grappling with an alarming rise in the exodus of IT leaders and chief information officers at a time when it needs a lot of resources, tools, manpower, and funds to respond effectively to emerging cyber threats and to prevent breaches of patient data.
In December last year, a series of Freedom of Information requests made by security firm Redscan revealed the impact of limited budgets and the lack of trained cyber security professionals on the cyber-resilience of NHS trusts across the UK.
Information obtained by Redscan revealed that the lack of trained cyber security professionals at the NHS was so acute that, based on responses from 159 NHS trusts, there was only one such specialist per 2,628 employees and nearly one in four such trusts did not have any cyber security specialists at all.
"The cybersecurity skills gap continues to grow and it’s incredibly hard for organisations across all sectors to find enough people with the right knowledge and experience. It’s even tougher for the NHS, which must compete with the private sector’s bumper wages. Not to mention the fact that trusts outside of traditional tech hubs like London and Cambridge have a smaller talent pool from which to choose from," said Mark Nicholls, director of cyber security at Redscan.
"Individual trusts are lacking in-house cybersecurity talent and many are falling short of training targets; meanwhile investment in security and data protection training is patchy at best. The extent of discrepancies is alarming, as some NHS organisations are far better resourced, funded and trained than others," he added.
NHS losing experienced IT leaders to the private sector
Already struggling with filling essential cyber security job positions, NHS is now losing experienced and talented cyber security and IT leaders and professionals to the private sector at an alarming pace. In January, NHS England chief digital officer Juliet Bauer left her job “with immediate effect” to work for a private digital GP firm.
Soon afterward, chief information officers at South London and Maudsley and Royal Brompton and Harefield foundation trusts left their jobs and earlier this week, Richard Corbridge, the chief digital information officer of Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, left his job for a future in the private sector.
Speaking to Health Service Journal, Mr. Corbridge said that the NHS is “stuck in a state of paralysis” as neither there are enough funds to accelerate digital innovation nor are healthcare leaders at NHS too enthusiastic about prioritising digital over other areas that need funding.
"Like many others, I’m sure, my motivation to leave is that opportunities to impact healthcare have become easier to realise outside of the NHS. Within it, there is a disjoint in understanding between healthcare leaders and decision-makers, which manifests in a system unable to make the transition into a digital world (at least, not as quickly and efficiently as we’d like).
"Too often, digital is neglected and seen as something that can be deferred and deferred again; the mantra ‘IT is not free’ needs to be reiterated and drummed into every board in the NHS – digital ambition requires prioritisation and funding," he bemoaned.
Mr Corbridge warned that NHS would continue to lose IT leadership and talent until it turns into a system "which understands and is ready to embrace digital". The proposed long term plan introduced by Digital Minister Matt Hancock is merely aspirational on paper and lacks identified funding, he said.
"For a digital health leader, this situation [is] excruciating. The ideas are there, the intention is there, but without money to deliver innovation we’re stuck in a state of paralysis, unable to ease the burden for NHS staff who continue to battle against the problems caused by an ageing population, years of chronic underfunding and a staffing crisis that amounts to over 100,000 vacant posts. Eventually, frustration takes its toll," he added.
Will NHSX be the answer?
In order to plug the critical skills gap in its IT and to transform digital innovation, NHS recently set up NHSX, a working group that would oversee the use and storage of data by NHS organisations and create policies and best practices for NHS technology, digital and data. The Health Secretary recently appointed Matthew Gould, who was Director General for Digital and Media Policy in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport since 2015, as the new CEO of NHSX.
"In Matthew Gould, NHSX has appointed a Chief Executive with a depth of experience at the intersection of technology and the public sector. We have worked closely with Matthew to help nurture a digital ecosystem where great ideas can become successful, scalable companies and there is a huge opportunity to do just that in the health sector," said Julian David, CEO of techUK.
"There is broad consensus that NHS technology simply isn’t good enough. Patients have to repeat the same information; clinicians spend hours logging on to outdated systems; and managers can’t access the data they need to make big decisions. We look forward to working with him to propel the UK into a destination of choice for health tech innovation," he added.