A new online tool allows people to quickly analyse and respond to the huge GP prescribing datasets released monthly by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

Co-developed by doctor and author Ben Goldacare, OpenPrescribing.net is available for free and its code is open source.

Target users include clinicians, clinical commissioning groups, patients and researchers, as it enables users to turn complex data into simple graphs that reveal how much of a given drug has been prescribed at both CCG and the GP practice level.

Its backers say the tool has the potential to save the NHS millions of pounds and make sure that patients are given the best medication for their conditions.

The HSCIC publishes GP prescription data every month, but the dataset amounts to 100GB and there are around four million rows for each file. This makes it time consuming and challenging to access and analyse.

The West of England Academic Health Science Network supported the development of the new platform to help make this data much more accessible.

Goldacre, who is also senior clinical research fellow at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in the Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, said the platform is something he has been trying to build for the past four years.

He believes it is clear that there are huge cost saving opportunities from greater transparency and wider access to data, but said these kinds of tools are “bizarrely”  difficult to fund.

“There are funds in place for very straight forward obvious academic work where the end product is an academic paper in a journal read by a small number of people, but when you try to use your academic skills to put data into action in the real world to produce a tool like this there isn’t really any funding streams available, so I’m very glad the AHSN came up with £50,000 to build the prototype,” he said.

"You can drill right down to the prescribing behaviour of individual GP practices, and all in the space of seconds. OpenPrescribing.net can help identify where there are variations and specific trends which could present opportunities for huge cost savings, or better prescribing.”

The platform has already revealed a number of variations across CCGs, such as the use of branded versus generic statins and in the prescription of newer oral anticoagulants compared with the use of Warfarin – the traditional treatment.

There are also plans to roll-out improvements to the prescribing platform over the next year, such as automatic identification of outliers and different ways of presenting information to people.

“This is agile product development, so we didn’t go out and get huge amounts of money to do something commercially – and very slowly – and release a really glossy finished product," Goldacre explained.

"Instead, we got a very small amount of money to build a working prototype and put it into action to get people using it and start gathering feedback. That’s a much better way of working."

The code is completely open so anyone can see how the team built the platform and contribute if they want to.

OpenPrescribing has been launched initially in beta and was co-developed by Anna Powell-Smith, a computer programmer specialising in data analysis and visualisation.

Digital Health newseditor Rebecca McBeth found that Ben Goldacre had some strong views on developing tools to use NHS data when she spoke to him about the OpenPrescribing project. Read more in features.