On 5 July 2023, the NHS will turn 75 years old. James Freed, Chief Digital and Information Officer and Senior Responsible Owner for the Digital Academy, reflects on how far the NHS has come in 75 years and the role digital will play in it's future.

As I write this, on the NHS' 75th birthday, I'm reminded of someone else in their mid-70s. My mother. She is happy, very capable and her mind, and certainly her memory, is razor sharp. She gets a bit tired now and then, but she's in good shape. Of course, I love her dearly.

It may be a little harder to assess an organisation. In many people's minds, the NHS isn't fairing quite so well. Multiple professions undertaking strike action, pressure on the workforce, pressure on budgets and rising waiting lists. Those sorts of things don't sound great.

But it's not all bad, and I'd like to present to you an optimist's guide to the NHS on its 75th birthday. I don't mean 'optimist' in the sense of unrealistic, nothing I'm about to say is false, overly ambitious or unlikely, but sometimes you just need to see the good side of things and if you can't do that on your birthday, when can you?

The NHS is one of the most innovative places to work. Evidence demonstrates that, compared to the private sector (on average) or other parts of the public sector, the NHS has been a powerhouse of productivity. We are an organisation that is continuously improving, and we are impatient to do it faster and better.    

We’re also in a world where digital technologies and data underpin more and more of our ability to innovate. The acceleration of change, in terms of what digital is capable of has been well described by Moore’s Law – essentially a doubling of the opportunity technology can provide every 2 years.

The NHS has been reaching for these tools for a while now. Despite it’s well-catalogued failures, the National Programme for Information Technology (IT) in the NHS was the biggest public sector technology programme at the time (possibly ever). We learned about how *not* to do change, and you certainly can’t fault our ambition! Since then, we have collectively managed significant investments in technology and data, at all levels, and are on course to succeed at a 100% implementation of Electronic Patient Records across England.

That ambition has come with challenges, of course. Like every other industry we suffer from a high degree of failure in the delivery of digital initiatives. Forbes and McKinsey reckon this failure rate across all industries to be about 70%. But we have an answer.

As the Digital Academy for Health and Care, and in collaboration with other NHS England teams looking to support, for the first time, workforce planning for Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) expertise across England, we are looking to provide in the NHS a home for future digital talent. If your ambition matches ours, we need you.  

As part of the ambition to help more young people into DDaT roles in the NHS and to mark the NHS’ 75th birthday, this week I’m in Sheffield at the University Technical College (UTC) speaking to students about the vast array of opportunities available to them in the NHS. I’ll be highlighting the variety of digital and data roles that we have, and students will get the chance to participate in workshops and meet with NHS Ambassadors. I think it’s vital that young people understand more about the opportunities available in our health service, and not just those traditional front-line care-based roles. We need to develop a pipeline of ambitious, enthusiastic new talent to enter the workforce, bringing fresh ideas and developing their digital careers.

And we can foster and incubate that talent. The Digital Academy has 10 distinct learning offers now, for clinical and non-clinical staff at all levels. Our digital literacy tool has supported more than 13,000 people in the NHS to develop the essential digital skills for work, our Digital Health Leadership programme has supported 500 senior digital leaders to wrestle with community-affecting decisions and our Digital Boards programme has directly helped more than 100 NHS trust boards to create organisations that are both user-centred and data-driven. 

We’ve got your back. We can help translate your passion into expertise. If you want to make a difference, the NHS, even at 75, is still the best place to do it. Check out NHS Jobs and search for ‘Digital’ today.


Mr James Freed

Chief Digital and Information Officer

Workforce Training and Education, NHS England

James is the Chief Digital and Information Officer (Workforce, Training and Education) in NHS England and Senior Responsible Owner of the Digital Academy for Health and Care.

Page last reviewed: 3 July 2023
Next review due: 4 July 2024