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Technology vision foresees new technical standards for NHS systems

Technology used by the NHS in England will need to conform to minimum technical standards in future, under plans outlined by the UK government.18 Oct 2018

The standards will be designed to ensure systems are interoperable and can be easily replaced by other systems when new technology becomes available. They will also address issues such as access to data, data privacy and confidentiality and cybersecurity. They will apply to both new and legacy IT systems.

"All new IT systems purchased by the NHS will be required to meet the standards we set out and existing services will need to be upgraded to meet these standards," the Department of Health and Social Care said in a new technology vision for healthcare it has published.

According to the paper, the NHS is currently constrained by having bespoke standalone systems in operation. This hinders data sharing and can impact on the level of service provided to patients, it said.

"Right now, we have too many systems that don’t talk to each other, often because the contracts we have in place do not adequately specify the standards of interoperability, usability and continual improvement that are needed," the government said. "Central to our need for interoperability is the patient record – not a system or application but the patient’s data itself. The ability to share records between hospitals, GPs, community pharmacies and care providers is inconsistent and people are frequently discharged from hospital without sufficient or accurate information about their care needs."

"Our technology infrastructure should allow systems to talk to each other safely and securely, using open standards for data and interoperability so people have confidence that their data is up to date and in the right place, and health and care professionals have access to the information they need to provide care. Interoperable, connected health information in other countries has shown cost-and time-saving benefits, including enhanced care co-ordination and a reduction in unnecessary diagnostic testing. We need to replace legacy architectural decisions to keep up with modern technology," it said.

According to the government's technology vision, NHS bodies in England will also be encouraged to buy public cloud solutions by default.

"When we start with the assumption that all our services should run in the public cloud with no more locally managed servers: we get the resilience and backups of some of the most cyber-aware and heavily invested companies in the world; we can run and grow projects that work with infinite amounts of data or have unpredictable processing needs; we can share data to increase security – and only those with appropriate access are able to see the data they need; the commodity services we use, like word processing, should be continually upgraded and improved – without massive migration projects," it said.

A new healthtech regulatory sandbox is also to be established to enable "innovators to develop and prove their ideas in clinical and ‘real world’ settings", and give NHS buyers a chance to see new technology in action before make a decision around procurement.

"To support innovators who are challenging the rules, we will introduce a healthtech regulatory sandbox, working with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the National Data Guardian, NICE and other regulators," the government said. "The healthtech sandbox will let us test, iterate and de-risk the most promising innovations – and the relevant regulation – so that when they are ready for uptake across the NHS, clinicians can use them with confidence."

The vision also sets out plans to deliver better diagnosis and treatment for patients using data and artificial intelligence (AI).

Helen Cline, an expert in life sciences and digital health at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "It is encouraging to see the government putting the end user, in particular the patient, at the centre of its vision for the future of healthcare in the UK. However if the full benefits of the government’s vision for healthcare are to be achieved patients and others need to have trust in the system and must be persuaded that sharing data creates a common good. To achieve confidence in a system where data can be exchanged across borders there is value in governance rules and standards for the safe and ethical use of patient data being agreed at an international rather than a national level."

Health and social care secretary in England, Matt Hancock, said: "A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators – inside and outside the NHS – and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world."