Both NHS Digital and NHSX, alongside Health Education England, are set to merge with NHS England under a series of wider reforms intended to improve recruitment and retention and support digital transformation in the NHS.
Announcing the ‘major reforms’ today, the DHSC said that combining NHS Digital and NHSX would improve cooperation between the ‘key digital bodies’ of the NHS.
This would in turn address waiting list backlogs, it claimed, while supporting the Government’s broader plans to digitally transform how the NHS runs.
The two brands will form part of NHSE’s new Transformation Directorate – the body set to lead the digital transformation agenda at national and ICS level – with NHSX becoming its strategy arm.
Up until the merger, NHS Digital was responsible for providing of information, data and IT systems for the NHS, while NHSX was set to outline the best practice for NHS technology.
Simon Bolton, who has been the interim CEO of NHS Digital since June, will become the chief information officer of NHSE.
Meanwhile, the decision to merge HEE – which is a DHSC body – into NHS England would see long-term workforce planning put to the ‘forefront’ of the national NHS agenda.
Currently, HEE coordinates education and training within the health and public health workforce.
Merger expected summer 2022
However, the Government does not currently have the power to enable formal legal mergers of the DHSC’s arm’s length bodies.
The power is currently being considered as part of the controversial Health and Care Bill, meaning the HEE merger is therefore subject to Parliament approving the measure, expected in summer 2022.
Similarly, NHS Digital will cease to be an independent arm’s length body of the DHSC as soon as the legislation allows.
The Government was criticised by health leaders and thinktanks last month after it ‘failed’ to use the Spending Review to address the NHS’ chronic workforce shortages.
The Treasury had confirmed £5.9bn investment into digital tech and to tackle England’s growing backlog for care, which currently sits at 5.8 million people.
But the King’s Fund noted ‘the real game changer would have been clear funding’ for a workforce plan.
Other warned that the funding to tackle the backlog would be ineffective without tackling vacancies across the NHS.
‘Disruptive’ merger must not waste staff time
Speaking to Healthcare Leader last week when rumours of a merger first appeared, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said that integrating HEE with NHSE may make workforce planning and support more central to NHS policy, as long as it was allocated sufficient funding.
‘The challenge now is to ensure that vital work in delivering education, alongside the development of workforce planning at system levels is maintained, and that talented and committed colleagues in HEE are not lost in time-consuming or disruptive reorganisation,’ he said.
‘The urgent matter in the Chancellor’s in-tray remains the need for a clear and ambitious long-term plan for the education and training budgets for health and social care.’
HEE and NHS Digital were founded in 2012 and 2013 respectively, while NHSX was introduced just over two years ago in 2019.