Here’s to Jeremy Hunt’s continuing commitment to digital health

Jeremy Hunt

As new Prime Minister Theresa May ruthlessly flexed her political muscles by dispatching MPs as part of her cabinet reshuffle, Jeremy Hunt’s days as health secretary, it seemed, were numbered.

That was at 10:55am. At 12:46pm, he was confirmed as staying on as health secretary. In between that short period, Twitter went wild with speculation. He had been ‘sacked’, ‘offered a different role’, ‘was stepping down’. Health Service Journal journalist Lawrence Dunhill even likened the Cabinet reshuffle media frenzy to football’s transfer deadline day.

The conclusion that he was extending his reign as the country’s longest-serving health secretary in history was met by counsel from some of healthcare’s most influencial organisations.

The King’s Fund warned against”‘making new commitments which cannot be funded”, and encouraged Hunt to “rebuild trust with NHS staff, especially junior doctors”.

The BMA, remained ‘committed’ to working with Mr Hunt. It added: “Doctors want to see the [health secretary] put the NHS on a sustainable footing for the future, address the serious funding shortfall and ensure we can recruit and retain the right number of doctors that our patients desperately need.”

Notable that neither organisation actually welcomed Hunt’s re-appointment.

There were reports that clinicians around the NHS cheered on hearing the initial unfounded news that Hunt had been sacked. Their contentment for the news, we now know, was short-lived.

So why did Theresa May keep on a health minister that has managed to ostracise himself from many in the medical community?

Perhaps May couldn’t find anyone else to take on the health brief. Perhaps her focus needs to be on wider issues such as the UK’s exit from the European Union? Or perhaps May recognises that stability is required in this period of financial uncertainty for the NHS.

Hunt’s mantra has always been that good care costs less. He argues that continuous learning and improvement in patient safety initiaives, at local and national level, can improve outcomes whilst reducing unnecessary spend of taxpayers’ money.

One of these initiaives, controversially, is Hunt’s determination to deliver seven day hospital services, based on the premise that mortality rates, patient experience, length of hospital stay and re-admission rates are worse on the weekend.

It is controversial due to questions around the evidence that backs up this premise, and the reservations of the medical community to resource and reward staff in delivering an extended service – a key motivation behind the junior doctors’ industrial action.

Seven day services, and other similar initaives under the Five Year Forward View’s new models of care, are underpinned by innovation and technology – and Hunt has continually advocated how digital solutions can transform the NHS.

But how much will the new Prime Minister know about these?

May is a sufferer of Type 1 diabetes, and is known to be diligent about looking after her health. Will she want to see greater investment in technology for the ‘revolution against prevention’? The majority of the 24,000 early deaths annually from diabetes could be avoided if people managed their condition properly.

Hunt himself has previously said he wants the 80% of spend on diabetes care, which is currently focused on treatment, and not prevention, to be reversed.

He has also pushed forward transparency and patient information agendas, intrinsically supported by healthcare technologies, whilst advocating the adoption of the electronic patient records – as listed by in an article on his re-appointment.

During his reign, technology funds have brought money, albeit not as much as initially promised, which is now being used to support integrated care initiatives, as well as the deployment of electronic record software for recording and managing patient information. Both aim to help clinicians and care providers to access medical and other pertinent information at the point-of-care.

Many good things in eHealth are happening as a result, and a further £4bn to NHS tech investment was promised, in part, to continue the drive towards a paperless NHS, and make improvements in cyber security. There have been failures too, notably the high-profile scheme, which was decommissioned last week.

There is no doubt that the technology revolution is gathering momentum across the NHS, and there is much progress to celebrate. Could we go as far as to suggest that Jeremy Hunt’s continued commitment to digital health saved his job? Like the events of yesterday, we can only speculate.

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