At the beginning of September, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) released an initial code of conduct for data-driven healthcare technology
The guidance outlines a commitment from the centre to encourage innovation, develop trusted approval systems and create a new pathway for innovators to sell into the health service.
Put simply, the code aims to ensure that the benefits of partnerships between tech companies and the health and care system are "shared fairly", providing "a basis to deepen the trust" between citizens, clinicians and the wider service, according to the DHSC - but this idea has long been mentioned by experts drawing attention to the potential and value of NHS data.
If you have been following the evolution of some of the companies that have been arguably more successful in transacting with the NHS, then this comes as no surprise to you.
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""I think we can be the exemplar company on how we should innovate and then give back to the NHS"
Ross Upton, Ultromics
Several companies have already adopted this approach
When announcing the results of the first phase of their research partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, showing that the AI system developed could identify eye disease from OCT scans with 94% accuracy, DeepMind Co-Founder Mustafa Suleyman said that, if validated for general use by clinical trials, Moorfields would be able to use the system for free across 30 of their UK hospitals and community clinics for an initial period of five years.
Meanwhile, Oxford University spin-out Ultromics set up a clinical trial through its partnership with Oxford University across six NHS hospitals for what the company describes as the "world's most accurate" echocardiography software, soon to be extended to 20 NHS sites and a further 10 afterwards. Ultromics CEO and Co-Founder Ross Upton said that, once they receive regulatory clearance, NHS hospitals would be able to use the software "at no cost" under the initial clinical trial agreement.
"I think we can be the exemplar company on how we should innovate and then give back to the NHS," Upton told MobiHealthNews.
Code of conduct to become 'collaboratively agreed standard' in December
Now, the DHSC says the new code, only voluntary at this stage, provides the principles they want "suppliers to live by and those involved in the commissioning and procurement of innovative, digital technologies and services" to look for.
There is an ultimatum though. In December, the guidance is expected to become a "collaboratively agreed standard" for tech partnerships – although it does not replace or change any existing regulatory requirements.
Why is this being introduced now? The government acknowledges that procurement routes "are not always well-suited to the adoption of fairly developing and evolving innovation" in healthcare. In fact, a recent report from PUBLIC found "poor procurement" practices were one of the key hurdles stopping innovators from selling into the NHS.
Why is NHS data so valuable? To function, AI and other complex algorithms require large amounts of data structured against agreed interoperable standards, used appropriately, safely and securely, and the NHS is said to be "uniquely positioned" to deliver this – but the number of disparate IT systems unable to talk to each other that are being used across the wider health and care service means this potential is only "theoretical" for now.
What about data security and privacy? The government acknowledges that the ability to "unlock" the power of innovation "relies on the public having confidence in the health and care system’s appropriate and effective use of data" and, in addition to the ten principles outlined, it vowed to:
- Simplify the regulatory and funding landscape
- Create an environment to enable "experimentation"
- Accelerate and encourage uptake of innovation
- Improve interoperability and openness
- Engage users.
Meanwhile, regulatory framework and commercial models used in this type of partnerships are being reviewed, and the government says it wants to work with stakeholders on the final version of the code, inviting them to submit their comments.
But, as tech suppliers will have to demonstrate they meet these requirements to transact with the NHS, will the government be able to deliver on its commitments to improve the quality of data or tackle the lack of interoperability between IT systems, and eradicate paper-based processes, with a significant chunk of the NHS still running on paper?
Source: Department for Health and Social Care official guidance
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