The proposed merger of NHS Digital and NHS England has been brought forward from March 2023 to January 2023.

The merger, which was originally announced following the review by NHS Digital chair Laura Wade-Gery, in late 2021 (entitled Putting data, digital and tech at the heart of transforming the NHS), which itself built upon objectives to digitise the NHS in the 2019 NHS Long Term Plan, will involve the transfer of data and staff from NHS Digital to NHS England. NHS Digital will cease to exist as an arm’s length body of DHSC.

The move is designed to help the NHS make better use of the data it holds, reducing the need for as many data transfers between different NHS bodies, allowing for easier access to patient records and speeding up the digitisation of the NHS. 

This follows the earlier merger of NHSX into NHS England. NHSX’s focus was to develop a technology strategy and at times overlapped with the role of NHS Digital.  

Despite being folded in together, what was NHSD and NHSX will have separate functions, with distinct chief information officer directorate functions (NHSD) and digital transformation strategy (NHSX) functions.

Some commentators are cautious about the move, calling for enhanced statutory rights for individuals to find out exactly what data is held on them, who can access it and what they can do with it.   

Others point to the benefits of NHS England acquiring a new “in-house” tech team, the removal of any duplication between the two bodies and the improvements in data usage over recent years. The more effective use of data has played a central role in innovations such as virtual wards, the establishment of the “shielded patient” list and the Covid data store, with nearly 20 million users registered for the NHS app. These innovations and others were used as case studies to justify the overarching plans set out by DHSC in its strategy document, Data Saves Lives.

In “Data Saves Lives” reference is made to the new powers in the Health and Care Act 2022, that will be used to allow public health and social care bodies greater scope to share anonymised data and for NHS England to access it for reasons that are “connected with” the provision of health and social care, and for private healthcare providers to be required to share data in specified circumstances with NHS England.

“Data Saves Lives” ends with a lengthy set of commitments that have been, or will, be put into place over the course of the next year to 18 months, so the pace of change will continue as the NHS’ digitisation journey presses on.