Interview with David Corbett, Programme Director - NHS WiFi, NHS Digital

What is NHS Wi-Fi (part of NHS Digital)'s vision for connectivity?

We want to provide the connectivity to allow patients to access digital tools, services and information via the internet which enables them to manage their own health and well-being, and improves their patient experience, whether that’s in a GP practice or a hospital or community care setting.

Examples of services they can access include information on NHS Choices, the largest digital health information service in Europe which is run by NHS Digital, where they can find information on health conditions and treatment options. They can also access apps and services which will help them to manage their conditions, like monitoring their blood pressure levels, as well as ordering repeat prescriptions and booking appointments.

We also want to help reduce feelings of isolation when patients are in hospital by enabling them to keep in contact with the outside world; whether that’s friends, family or colleagues, staying connected through social media, and keeping up with the news.

Similarly, we want NHS clinicians and healthcare staff to have access to digital tools, systems and services which support them in their day-to-day roles and help them to deliver better, safer and more efficient patient care.

What are the drivers behind this? What needs do you hope to meet?

The underlying driver came from the National Information Board (NIB) Personalised Health and Care 2020 framework which talked about taking advantage of the opportunity digital presents in improving health, transforming the quality and reducing the cost of health and care services. It also pointed to giving patients and citizens more control over their health and wellbeing, empowering carers, reducing the administrative burden for care professionals, and supporting the development of new medicines and treatments.

Making WiFi freely available to patients and clinicians was a recommendation made in support of this to the Department of Health by Dame Martha Lane-Fox to help transform patient experiences and outcomes. Accepting the recommendation Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt said Wi-Fi should be a key enabler in making the NHS a world leader in digital. In response the NHS WiFi programme was established in April 2016 with NHS Digital tasked with delivering free WiFi across the NHS Estate by March 2019, in line with the ministerial commitment.

What are the main challenges you're facing?

I think it's the sheer scale of things; if you think of the NHS, we've got well over 200 secondary care trusts which include mental health, community and acute hospitals; along with over 9,000 GP practices spread across about 200 Clinical Commissioning Group areas, so there's quite a lot to get to, just in terms of individual installations and getting permissions from landlords, and supplier capacity, plus the challenges around procurement. Fortunately, we've taken a local approach to procurement with funding being provided through the programme to CCGs and Trusts which allows them to procure services from suppliers listed on established frameworks that can provide services that meet the NHS WiFi standards.

The other thing that's been challenging is the fact that many CCGs and Trusts are quite disparate in terms of their estates. It might be straightforward, or it might be quite complex – many secondary care Trusts are spread across large geographies which presents lots of challenges in terms of connectivity and implementation.

How are you trying to overcome this?

Well we've addressed this from a national point of view by working with Government, the local NHS and suppliers to create national standards and specifying what CCGs and trusts need, so there is local autonomy and an agreement about how that money is spent. We've also helped with match making by bringing suppliers together with CCGs and Trusts through a number of events.

In terms of implementation and delivery, we've worked to make sure local areas understand what the challenges are, and we've learnt a lot of lessons early in the programme. For example, the need to engage early with estates, which can prevent problems further down the line. There have been other challenges that CCGs and Trusts have faced, but we find that once one or two of them have found solutions we've been able to get them on board to share their best practice which has been helpful.

We've been quite careful in terms of delivery, starting off quite small, and allowing time to learn lessons before we've moved onto the next stage. For example, in primary care we started with about 10 CCGs (around 1,000 GP practices). Once they delivered we took on board lessons and tweaked the approach and standards and timelines where necessary before the next stage.

What kinds of companies are you working with on this?

We have been working with a whole range of suppliers, ranging from International Companies to Regional ones (and in some cases local). Although the services are being commissioned by the CCGs and Trusts themselves, we have been engaging with suppliers to inform the planning (and latterly implementation) process and to resolve issues on behalf of our CCGs and Trusts. We’ve also worked through representative bodies such as Innopsis and Tech UK who represent a range of suppliers including large WiFi suppliers and system integrators.

How do you envisage this affecting the lives of patients and staff in the future?

Well really this depends on how willing patients are to embrace it, and with things becoming more digital like electronic referrals, digital X-rays, online prescriptions and the like, it will become easier for them to access this. Particularly for young people, who are used to using technology in their day-to-day life, they’ll expect to be able to be connected online. It will also better enable things like video conferencing and video consultations, which are all things that can support improvements in how healthcare is delivered.

Where do you look to for ideas, support and best practice in making this happen?

We look at other areas of government, such as our colleagues in Government Digital Services (GDS) and departments such as the Department of Work and Pensions and Ministry of Justice who have already rolled out free WiFi. We also look at other industry such as the rail and entertainment industry, hospitality and leisure. We are very aware of making sure we’re looking at government and non-government for ideas as to how we approach this project. We also work closely with other areas within NHS Digital and local NHS to understand how Wi-Fi technologies could be used and what would be needed.

What are you most interested in learning more about? And what do you hope to gain by attending SCWS World?

At the moment we're about to start the wider roll-out into secondary care, so I’m interested to see if there are any organisations out there that are interested in working with our Trusts. Equally I’m interested in thinking about the future and our connectivity requirements, making sure we future proof solutions and can make recommendations for how connectivity is provided in the future.