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, broader, and safer use of health data. His review takes into account lessons from data use since the emergence of Covid-19, and sets out 185 recommendations to the government, while providing advice on how health data should be utilised in the NHS.
Resulting from a request from former health secretary Matt Hancock in February 2021 for an investigation on how to use health data for research and analysis purposes, the review’s scope includes issues such as how to facilitate access while also preserving patient privacy, as well as how to overcome the technical and cultural barriers to achieving this.
“NHS data is a phenomenal resource that can revolutionise healthcare, research, and the life sciences. But data alone is not enough. We need secure, efficient platforms – and teams with skills – to unleash this potential. This will be difficult, technical work. It is inspiring to see momentum grow for better, broader, safer use of health data across so many sectors,” said Goldacre.
Increasing data transparency is one of the key proposals set out in the report. Goldacre says this could be delivered by adopting Trusted Research Environments (TREs), which would function as secure virtual spaces for verified researchers to access health data, thus reducing the risk of data breaches.
In addition, 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 modernising professionals’ job and career development, including improving salaries, training, structure, community and best practice.
Moreover, the review also includes a recommendation around encouraging open working for all NHS data analysis. For example, the use of 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 ground-breaking research. As we move forwards, millions of patients could benefit from the more efficient use of health data, through boosting innovation and ensuring the NHS can continue to offer cutting-edge care, saving lives,” said health secretary Sajid Javid.
The review’s findings will help shape the upcoming Health and Social Care Data Strategy, which is expected to set the direction for the use of data in the healthcare system post-pandemic.
After the launch of the Goldacre review in 2021, shadow ministers called for a public consultation following the release of the 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 “rapid” and complement the government’s data strategy for health and social care, but that “the NHS needs the public’s trust in order to operate and be effective” and “meaningful consultation is the only way to retain the public trust on which our collective public health depends”.
The NHS has twice started major projects to gather patients’ medical records into a central database for better research and analysis, but was forced into a U-turn both times over privacy concerns.