Commitments to open-source technology are enshrined in NHS policy but adoption is frustratingly slow. It is time to spread the word on the new way to collaborate on, co-fund and reuse digital technology, says Made Tech’s Hazel Jones

Open source refers to technology that can be modified and shared because its design is publicly accessible. Opening up digital products so that multiple NHS trusts can use them has potentially huge efficiency benefits for services across the UK. It’s a great approach for risk averse trusts as open-source digital tools have already been invested in, tried and tested and proven to work safely.

As regional organisations across both health and care face similar challenges and opportunities, an open-source approach offers the chance to pool resources and funding to build the same thing once and then share it. This is much more efficient than solving a shared problem many times – region by region. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And it is simple. So why is there such a seemingly slow and low adoption rate?

Resources and tools

The good news is that the NHS and government have put in the work around open source. There’s lots of resources and tools out there.

The NHS Data Strategy includes two commitments on making code that we produce open and reusable. And the Future of Healthcare policy supports the need for interoperability and openness around standards, culture, technology and code.

The NHS Service Standard design guidance helps team build and run services that improve health outcomes. It also helps us improve experiences of health and care and the efficiency of the health service. We’ve now also got the Open source digital playbook that shares advice and case studies for those embracing open source within the NHS.

All these resources shine a light on the next step in this journey – how we spread awareness and help drive the adoption of open source.

Solutions already exist

We know that in any large organisation and particularly the NHS, priorities are set at the top and cascaded down. Within that, all trusts will have similar challenges that often crossover. And each will undoubtedly have their own solution to those challenges. Often trusts are already focused on current challenges and might not be aware that a relevant solution may already exist.

By continuing to work with organisations like the AHSN Network and FutureNHS who are driving innovation, technology providers can show, discuss and promote their open-source projects. And this is how we can help transform the health service.

Shout about the benefits

It doesn’t end there. We all need to shout about the benefits. Through open source, we’re helping build a future without the fragmented technology and platforms we still see all too often.

A project that highlights the potential of open source is NHS Gloucestershire’s digital support finder. On Your Mind Glos, aimed to get young people to the right support at the right time and improve their experience of accessing mental health support.

The dedicated website guides users through a series of questions to understand how they’re feeling and what support they might need. They’re then signposted to the most relevant service for their needs and given useful information about mental health along the way. It launched in schools alongside a programme of mental health awareness and has reached around 10,000 young people.

While it was developed for young people, other departments within NHS Gloucestershire and outside the organisation have shown interest in the tool. As the existing model has been tried, tested and proven safe to use, it could be adapted for different users, such as vulnerable adults in need of mental health support.

Future collaboration

Building a culture of working in the open will build essential collaborative relationships across hospitals and trusts. But we’ve still got to spread the message of the benefits of open source and how it works, from the top down.

When a digital product is funded with public money, it should be available for the whole NHS to reuse and adapt. Together we can build an eco-system of home-grown NHS and care technology that can be shared safely and freely built on without the dreaded vendor lock in.

Hazel JonesHazel Jones is head of health at Made Tech