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Use of healthcare data must improve, says report

Life sciences sector report calls on government to create several digital innovation hubs, improve data use and establish a regulatory health technology assessment and commercial framework

A life sciences report, commissioned by the government, has called for increased focus on research and development (R&D), data and digital tools.

The Life sciences industrial strategy report, launched on 30 August by University of Oxford professor John Bell, sets out how the UK life sciences sector can become “an international benchmark for success” following Brexit. 

It highlights the importance of data and healthcare analytics, which is a rapidly growing market, and criticises the lack of interoperability and comprehensive electronic prescribing in the NHS.  

“The lack of comprehensive electronic prescribing, including indications across all hospitals, for example, already impedes the ability of the NHS to know what has been prescribed, and this will prevent novel pricing strategies such as indication-specific pricing or volume/outcomes-based pricing being applied,” stated the report.

“Similarly, there is insufficient linkage between hospital and primary care IT systems, making real-world data collection difficult. NHS England and NHS Digital should move to address this rapidly.”

Data has potential

It went on to call for NHS Digital and NHS England to set out “clear and consistent national approaches to data and interoperability standards and requirements for data access agreements”.  

The report said the development of algorithms was a key part of future research and development in the sector, particularly with the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

However, current regulations fail to provide a framework to account for those new technologies, such as machine learning algorithms that update with new data, the report said, adding that there was an opportunity to better realise the value of data for the NHS at a national level.

“A new regulatory, health technology assessment and commercial framework should be established to capture for the UK the value in algorithms generated using NHS data,” it said.

“Data in the healthcare system provides crucial opportunities to fundamentally change the way health services are provided, and developing digital tools such as AI is going to form an increasingly important segment of the life sciences sector.”

The report, which was launched at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Translational Medicine, follows the government’s industrial strategy greenpaper published in January this year.

The greenpaper recommended investments in science, research and innovation, as well as increasing the development of digital skills.  

Digital innovation

One of the key recommendations in the life sciences report was the creation of “regional systems of data hubs” – dubbed “digital innovation hubs” – that would hold “comprehensive and secure data in primary, secondary and tertiary care, as well as social care and community data, for a population of between three and five million people”.

The hubs would follow clear national data and interoperability standards, which the report said “should allow federation and development towards the long-term ambition of national coverage” and would enable “studies to be run across multiple hubs and de-identified data to be appropriately and securely linked to information from national datasets such as genomics or NHS Digital’s Data Services Platform”.

The hubs, which the report envisions there will be between two and five of, will operate in line with national guardian for health and care Fiona Caldicott’s recommendations on patient data.  

Collaboration with industry

The report also called on the NHS to make it easier for industry, particularly small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to engage with the health service.

SMEs producing innovative products can find it challenging to engage with the NHS. Efforts must be “made to improve uptake of innovative products by the NHS, building on the promising early start being made by Academic Health Science Networks, the report said.

It added that the way NHS procurement and funding works can make it difficult for SMEs to find a way in.

“NICE’s [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] funding model for technology evaluation should be set up in a way that does not stifle SME engagement,” it said.

Commenting on the report, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK had a proud history of “medical breakthrough and innovation”.

“I want patients to continue to be at the front of the queue for the best treatments available, whether that means early access to trials, giving staff brand new innovations and technology to work with, or being at the heart of research to share best practice quickly across the health and social care system,” he said.

“A strong and growing life sciences sector ensures this, particularly as we negotiate our exit from the EU.”

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