Safer use of patient health data will drive innovation in the NHS and improve healthcare, according to the findings of an independent review commissioned by the UK government.
The report by Ben Goldacre, Bennett Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, says the NHS can achieve better, wider and safer use of health data. Its review takes into account lessons learned from using data since the emergence of Covid-19 and sets out 185 recommendations to government, while providing advice on how health data should be used in the NHS.
Resulting from a request by former Health Secretary Matt Hancock in February 2021 for an investigation into how to use health data for research and analysis, the scope of the review includes questions such as how to facilitate access while maintaining patient privacy, as well as how to overcome technical and cultural barriers to achieve this.
“NHS data is a phenomenal resource that can revolutionize healthcare, research and the life sciences. But data alone is not enough. We need secure and efficient platforms – and skilled teams – to unlock this potential. It will be hard and technical work. It is inspiring to see the momentum building for better, wider and safer use of health data in so many sectors,” said Goldacre.
Increasing data transparency is one of the main proposals presented in the report. Goldacre says this could be achieved by adopting Trusted Research Environments (TREs), which would function as secure virtual spaces for verified researchers to access health data, thereby reducing the risk of data breaches.
Additionally, Goldacre advises the government to improve opportunities for data analysts within the NHS. The professor argues in his report that this could be achieved by modernizing the employment and career development of professionals, including improving salaries, training, structure, community and best practices.
Additionally, the review also includes a recommendation to encourage open working for all NHS data analyses. For example, using a shared library of data analysis tools would facilitate this, reducing duplication and increasing consistency of results.
“Countless lives have been saved through the pandemic after health data enabled groundbreaking research. As we move forward, millions of patients could benefit from more effective use of health data, driving innovation and ensuring the NHS can continue to deliver cutting-edge, life-saving care,” said Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Findings from the review will help shape the next health and social services data strategy, which is expected to set the direction for data use in the health system post-pandemic.
Following the launch of the Goldacre review in 2021, Shadow Ministers called for a public consultation following the release of findings on the use of health data for research and analysis.
At the time, shadow ministers said they understood Hancock wanted the review to be ‘swift’ and to complement the government’s data strategy for health and social care, but that ‘the NHS needs the public trust to operate and be effective” and “meaningful consultation is the only way to maintain the public trust on which our collective public health depends”.
The NHS has twice launched major projects to collate patients’ medical records into a central database for better research and analysis, but has been forced to do an about-face each time over privacy concerns.