Former M&S boss appointed as NHS productivity tsar

Steve Rowe was appointed after the ‘turnaround story that M&S experienced’.

Ella Pickover
Thursday 07 March 2024 17:16 GMT
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins has appointed former M&S boss Steve Rowe to work in the Department of Health and Social Care (PA)
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins has appointed former M&S boss Steve Rowe to work in the Department of Health and Social Care (PA) (PA Wire)

The former boss of M&S has been appointed to drive productivity in the NHS – which could include saving doctors’ time by using artificial intelligence (AI) to transcribe notes for medical records.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said the service needed to adapt like the popular high street chain to survive for the next 75 years.

She also announced plans for a new prevention agenda to try and stop ill health from occurring in the first place, but warned that the NHS must not criticise people for being “too fat or too short”.

In a major keynote speech at the Nuffield Trust think tank’s annual summit, Ms Atkins said former Marks and Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe is joining the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the productivity plan “improves care throughout England”.

Mr Rowe’s appointment, made because of the “turnaround story” that M&S has had in the last few years, will be a “very significant step forward”, she said.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a £3.4 billion investment in NHS productivity in his Budget through expanding the use of AI, reducing paperwork for medics and improving access to patients. Mr Hunt also announced an extra £2.45 billion for day-to-day NHS spending, which will cover areas such as wages.

Ms Atkins said the “enormous amount of money” would help to deliver improvements to day-to-day technology as well as employ the use of AI and other innovative technology.

“We listened to nurses and doctors on the wards about how having antiquated computer systems on wards (saying) ‘hold you up’, ‘it’s incredibly frustrating’ and ‘it’s not why you came into medicine’. Well then, let’s sort that out, as well as the very exciting opportunities of AI that are coming down the train tracks to us,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ve quite had a full public conversation yet about what AI will mean for healthcare, I think we’re beginning to see signs of it in the States.

“For example, the voice activated AI – which is part of our plans for this productivity plan – this will mean that clinicians consultants, have your appointment with a mum and her child and rather than after that conversation having to go and type up for 20 minutes, the notes will be created thereby cutting down the amount of time you have to spend tapping into a computer.

“I want you looking after patients not looking at computer screens.”

This much love British brand a stalwart of our high streets for decades, realised that change was needed and embraced modernity, pivoting towards the next generation willing them over and securing its long term future.

Victoria Atkins

Concerns have been raised about accuracy of such tools in the past.

Indeed an AI software used to transcribe Ms Atkins’ speech recorded her as saying “Christmas” instead of “Chris Whitty” – England’s chief medical officer.

On the appointment of Mr Rowe, she added: “I am delighted today to announce that Steve is joining the Department as one of our non-executive directors with a remit to accelerate delivery and ensure that the productivity plan, which is fully funded, improves care throughout England.

“We are standing on the cusp of a medical revolution, where technology, personalised therapies and better data can transform outcomes for a generation who are more health conscious than any that came before them.

“The NHS must seize this opportunity and look to the future, not restrict ourselves to what has always been done. In fact, it needs to have – to borrow a phrase an M&S moment.

“This much-loved British brand, a stalwart of our high streets for decades, realised that change was needed and embraced modernity, pivoting towards the next generation – winning them over and securing its long-term future.

“This is what the NHS needs to do to make sure it’s there for the next 75 years.”

Ms Atkins continued: “I love M&S and am very happy to welcome Steve Rowe into the Department.

“The reason we’re doing that is precisely because of the turnaround story that M&S has experienced in the last five, six, seven years – whereby it’s fair to say they were in the doldrums and we all worried about stores closing.

“And it’s because they have listened to what their customers have said, but they’ve also acknowledged they need to move forward, and I think that bringing Steve to the Department, helping us with the productivity plan – but other forms of delivery as well, it will be a very significant step forward.”

Ms Atkins told delegates at the conference that plans to boost preventing ill health in the population would be revealed in the next few weeks.

But she added: “On prevention, I do not agree with the finger wagging approach because as a patient, I don’t think it works.

“And so what we have to do is support people into making healthier decisions. And by the way, our younger generations are much more health conscious than they were before, we need to help them with what healthy looks like.

“And I think we can do that through both guidance and nudging and some of the ideas you’ll hear about in due course.

“We don’t have to be constantly telling people off and calling them short and fat. I don’t think that works.”

Meanwhile she also used the speech to warn local NHS leaders that they must be held accountable as they spend tax payers’ money.

She said she was “concerned” to hear of “a few” Integrated Care Board leaders “who apparently do not consider it part of their job to speak to local members of parliament, people who represent local communities, or to explain their funding decisions.

She added: “We have to recognise that as public services are funded by the public for the public, that attitude is not acceptable and must please change.”

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