Taking steps towards a data-driven future for health and social care

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A new policy paper promises to make it easier for innovators and developers to build and deploy tech and AI solution. So, will it help make the vision of a data-driven health service a reality?

COVID-19 “revolutionised” the health and care data space, and we have a duty to apply what we have learnt to building a healthier future for everyone.

That’s according to Simon Madden, Director of Policy and Strategy at NHSX, who spoke about the Government’s new Data Saves Lives report at the NHS Confederation Conference.

“COVID has transformed how we actually use health and care data, and we believe it points the way to a new future,” he said.

“Data has been used in so many new ways to care for people, and to help the NHS and social care better understand and respond to the virus.”

The use of the Control of Patient Information Regulations has enabled the acceleration of research, and increased staff access to health and care records led to safer, more joined up care, he said.

At the same time, information pulled into the NHS COVID-19 data store allowed the NHS to track the spread of the virus and ensure resources, such as ventilators and oxygen, were in the right place at the right time.

Madden said: “The data have helped us to first identify, and then protect, those most at risk from the virus itself, and it’s proven the efficacy and the safety of our world leading vaccination programme.”

Proposals: Data infrastructure

The pandemic has offered up opportunities that “we cannot look away from”, he went on.

“Never before has the public at large had such an interest in the detail of daily changes in disease rates. They have been directly engaged in data collection, for instance, in the King’s College London COVID symptom study, and this has been used to drive improvements in treatment, as well as decisions at a local, national and regional level,” said Madden.

“People have been part of the transformation.”

The Department of Health and Social Care’s new draft data strategy, Data Saves Lives: Reshaping Health and Social Care with Data, aims to help the sector to embrace this opportunity.

It sets out a number of “visions”, including bringing people closer to their data, giving health and care professionals the data they need to provide the best care, and using data to support local- and national-level decision making.

The document also talks about improving data for adult social care, ensuring researchers have the data they need, and helping developers and innovators to improve health and care.

“The UK has a large and vibrant health and care tech sector. It gives us huge potential both to improve care and to power the UK economy,” said the strategy.

“As data is the cornerstone of the health and care tech sector, we must make sure innovators are given clarity over what, how, and where it can be accessed and used. Clear frameworks, standards and guidance on data use ensuring the highest levels of data protection, will allow us to bring all the benefits of innovation back into the system.”

The paper highlights a number of existing initiatives, such as the NHS AI Lab and the Centre for Improving Data Collaboration (CIDC), which guides NHS trusts in their discussions with potential industry partners.

It also commits to “take things further” by encouraging innovation and building the infrastructure it needs to flourish.

“Following our departure from the EU, we also have an opportunity to make the UK the leader in proportionate, innovation-friendly regulation of AI technologies,” said the strategy.

“The NHS AI Lab is working to create a clear and robust regulatory framework for AI, that supports innovation and gives patients and clinicians confidence that AI products are safe and effective.”

DHSC, the paper says, will work with the MHRA and NICE to develop unified standards for the efficacy and safety testing of AI solutions by 2023, and support UK regulators to ensure all AI regulation is streamlined, and fit for purpose.

“Some of the most exciting areas of tech innovation in health and social care come from artificial intelligence, algorithms and data-driven technologies,” said the strategy.

“We know that this cutting-edge work isn’t always easy to sell into the NHS, and we are taking steps to help local NHS organisations become stronger buyers and more informed consumers of data-driven tools and services.”

“The UK has a large and vibrant health and care tech sector. It gives us huge potential both to improve care and to power the UK economy” 

Moment of opportunity

Published at the end of June and currently under public consultation, the whole strategy is underpinned by three key priorities, explained Madden.

The first is building understanding on how data is used and the potential for data-driven innovation, while improving transparency and ensuring the public has control over how their information is used.

“To lock in the beneficial changes and to capitalise on the momentum, we need to build staff and public confidence that the system is trustworthy,” said Madden.

“We know that this strategy will trigger debates around issues of access, choice, and transparency, but the publication is the beginning, rather than the end of those debates.”

The document also prioritises making appropriate data sharing “the norm, rather than the exception” across health, adult social care and public health, and building the right foundations – whether they are technical, legal, regulatory – to make that possible.

“We cannot, having so unequivocally proven that we can go so much further, go back. To improve care for everyone, it’s our duty to ensure the benefits and the lessons learned from the pandemic response are not lost,” he said.