The NHS is to expand the use of a secure research platform behind the roll-out of new Covid-19 treatments to help drive life-saving advances for other major diseases.
GPs and academic researchers are supporting the NHS with widening the use of the service to allow scientists to securely analyse data in GP systems – without seeing patient-identifiable information – in a plan which could lead to the discovery of new treatments for other major conditions such as cancer, diabetes and asthma.
Access to this data will enable researchers to understand more about medicines, treatments and patient outcomes, which could support better clinical practice and provide crucial evidence on the most effective prescribing.
A key system used to deliver these insights was NHS England’s OpenSAFELY service, developed in collaboration with the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science at the University of Oxford.
OpenSAFELY, which has so far enabled over 150 research projects from 22 different organisations, played a significant role during the pandemic, helping researchers to understand which patients were most at risk from the virus, evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines, monitor which patients were receiving new Covid-19 treatments, and understand changes in patient care during and after the pandemic.
The NHS will now carefully test which types of research the service could support beyond Covid-19, following feedback from academic researchers, patients, and medical professionals.
NHS national medical director for transformation Dr Vin Diwakar said: “The data held by the NHS is globally unique and as we saw during the pandemic, this approach enables researchers to benefit from that valuable resource, whilst keeping the data secure, safe and private.
“Expanding this service will unlock the power of patient data to help drive life-saving treatment breakthroughs to help people with a range of conditions and illnesses.”
OpenSAFELY is designed to keep patient data confidential and secure, and the de-identified data does not leave the platform at any stage.
The expansion of the platform builds on a wider programme already outlined in the government’s Data Saves Lives strategy to improve health and care using data, involving several platforms through which data for research is accessed.
Professor Ben Goldacre, director of the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science, said: “OpenSAFELY has shown that it’s possible to address privacy concerns, and also deliver research outputs at scale, in collaboration with our diverse community of analyst users across the country.
“We are excited to be working ever more closely with NHS England on this important service.”
OpenSAFELY will be open to new research applicants as soon as possible in 2024.
Data platforms are a hot topic within the NHS at the moment, with the sector braced for the imminent announcement of the federated data platform (FDP) procurement winner, which is expected to be Palantir in partnership with Accenture.