The government’s much anticipated data strategy is set to be published this week.

The draft strategy is expected to promote the use of technology including robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), and give people access to their medical records.

During the pandemic, data has been used to boost clinical trials, avoid lengthy hospital stays, and provide new services to care for people in their own home using remote patient monitoring.

The data strategy, led by NHSX and first announced by health secretary Matt Hancock in November last year, aims to learn from work undertaken during the pandemic to ensure the health and social care sector can effectively use data to design and deliver better services.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Hancock said: “Data saves lives. We need to learn from the pandemic to improve the way our health and care system processes data, giving power to patients and enabling clinicians to use data in new ways to improve patient care and support research for innovative treatments.

“This pandemic has shown us just how many lives can be saved through effective use of data – we must do all we can to harness this potential and the changes brought about through this strategy will no doubt go on to save countless more lives in the future.”

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, added: “Safe access to a patient’s data allows a doctor to make the right diagnosis and offer patients the right treatment. Safe access to aggregated data-driven research into new treatments like dexamethasone for Covid-19, which has now saved over a million lives.

“The new data strategy will set out our vision to go further, to learn from the pandemic, to save more lives with data, to use technology to ensure patient privacy is even better protected, and to give patients more control of their health records.”

The strategy will promote the use of robotic process automation, which uses bots to automate back-office processes. It is expected to save the NHS more than half a million hours a year in staff time by 2025, according to a statement from the Department of Health and Social Care.

It will also include proposals to make the UK a leader in innovation-friendly regulation of AI technologies. This will include developing unified standards for the efficacy and safety testing of AI solutions and streamlining the path to market AI technologies.

Trials being supported include using AI to replace the need for two radiologists to review breast cancer scans.

Martin Landray, Professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford and the clinical trials lead at Health Data Research UK, said: “Within 100 days, the RECOVERY trial found that a low-dose steroid treatment called dexamethasone reduced the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators.

“It was the world’s first coronavirus treatment proven to save lives. Estimates are that it may have saved many hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Pre-Covid, it would have taken 100 days to even get permission to go ahead with the trial. We cannot go back. It is a challenge, but one we have to take on, because the future of all of our care depends on robust knowledge on whether treatments work or do not work.”

The strategy will build on work such as the NHS Covid-19 Data Store, which was set up as a front door for access to data during the pandemic, with the aim to reduce red tape around data and information governance.

As part of the government’s work to capitalise on good use of data, NHSX is also expected to convene a new Data Alliance Partnership, bringing together key bodies such as the Care Quality Commission, NHS Business Services Authority, Public Health England and NICE, with an aim to establish principles on data collection, sharing and use.

The partnership will “facilitate increased access to data, by making aggregate/anonymised data accessible by default”.

It follows the launch of Hancock’s “bureaucracy-busting mission” at the NHS Confederation’s NHS Reset conference on 24 November 2020. It aims to lock in positive changes seen during the pandemic to “empower frontline health and care staff”.

A bumpy road

However the government’s use of data during the pandemic has faced criticism, particularly around transparency of contracts and scope for which data can be used by big tech firms.

A damning National Audit Office report on procurement during the pandemic found a general lack of transparency and adequate documentations around key decisions “such as why particular suppliers were chosen or how government identified and managed potential conflicts of interest”.

Contracts that have caused concern among tech justice advocates are those relating to AI firms Palantir and Faculty and their role in the NHS Covid-19 Data Store.

Most recently NHS Digital came under fire for its General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) and the timeframe GPs had to implement it.

GPDPR aims to give planners and researchers faster access to pseudonymised patient information.

NHS Digital announced in May 2021 that the new service would come into effect on 1 July 2021, with people given until 23 June to choose to opt out. After facing backlash from patients, doctors and health charities the deadline was moved to 1 September 2021.