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Code4Health helps the NHS to innovate and collaborate

The Code4Health movement is growing into a series of communities focused on driving innovation and technology in the NHS

Code4Health has re-emerged to stimulate innovation in the NHS and encourage clinicians to get involved in building open-source technology fit for a 21st century NHS.

Although managed by NHS England, Code4Health is based on communities of front-line NHS workers, suppliers and anyone else who wants to encourage better use of technology across the health service, Richard Jefferson, NHS England’s head of business systems told Computer Weekly.

The programme teaches clinicians how to code, serves as the home of several open-source projects and actively encourages people to come up with their own health-focused technology ideas. It resurfaced earlier in 2015 after a long hiatus.

Code4Health in its original form was first announced in 2012 by NHS England’s director of patients and information, Tim Kelsey, who envisioned thousands of medical professionals and patients creating healthcare apps.

Based on Code for America, a US programme set up to teach local government workers how to make apps, Kelsey was inspired to do the same in the NHS.

He planned to teach 50,000 clinicians to code, but that original idea never came to life and the programme almost disappeared – before launching in a new form earlier this year.

Code4Health is now about more than just teaching clinicians how to code. It has become a wider programme promoting openness, skills and collaboration across the health service.

A platform for change

There are four strands to Code4Health, according to Jefferson

The first is the Code4health platform, built by Handi, which is used as a testing and development environment to build apps. The platform also provides direct access to open application programming interfaces (APIs).

The second is a series of courses, such as “how to build an app in a day”, aimed at clinicians. “It’s about training clinicians to code. We teach them what coding is and how it works,” said Jefferson.

So far, around 200 have attended the training days, which are open to clinicians regardless of previous experience or skills, including those who “aren’t IT literate at all”.

Code4Health is also planning to run a “data in a day” course, designed to help clinicians understand how to use data. They might be able to use it to track real-time triage processes in an A&E department, for example.

Jefferson said that some might come away having built apps, whereas others might just learn how to engage better with their IT teams by understanding the work that goes into creating an app.

The aim of the courses is to drive clinicians to want to be part of a community and take forward ideas and projects. The initial pilot sessions are now finished and Code4Health is actively looking for organisations that want to host further events across the country.

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The third strand of Code4Health is all about communities. Code4health has become the home of several open-source projects and some of the communities are built around a specific software, such as OpenMaxims, the open-source electronic patient record system that went live at Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust in an NHS-first in September 2015.

Others have been created around local initiatives or specific topics and interests. One of these is the 111/Urgent & Emergency Care community, which aims to share knowledge and expertise across the UK to drive new technology and innovation in the space.  

“The communities are NHS-led, where people want to get together and do something,” said Jefferson.

He made it clear that this isn’t an NHS England programme, but that Code4Health is led by people in the NHS and its suppliers, which NHS England is keen to support.

“We want to get to a point where the communities are self-sustainable. [NHS England] can facilitate it, but it has to be driven by people in the NHS itself. We want to stop it being perceived as an ivory tower.”

Challenging new ideas

Although Code4Health and its communities are primarily focused on open source, Jefferson said it doesn’t mean that NHS England supports open source over proprietary software and suppliers, but that it’s about “stimulating innovation to create openness”.

To do that, Code4Healths fourth strand is a series of challenges, launched at the recent NHS Innovation Expo.

The challenges give anyone who is interested the chance to submit ideas around how to solve specific problems. The deadline for entries is Friday 16 October 2015.

One of the challenges, led by the Open Source Software Foundation, a community interest company chaired by three NHS clinicians, asks people to submit ideas “which utilise existing or new open-source resources to provide a solution they feel is required across health and social care”.

Another challenge focuses on urgent and emergency care and technology that “connects people with the right care, first time, when they present with a potentially urgent or emergency need”.

One challenge, launched by SoftServe, has a later deadline, with entries closing in mid-December. The “integrated social care with internet body of things challenge” aims to identify “innovative and low-cost ways to engage with and provide early warning signs for individuals who require social care to expedite an in-home intervention” using wearable technology or sensors.

The idea isn’t that there’s a huge cash prize at the end of it; it’s about nurturing the community that wants to achieve something,” said Jefferson.

The ideas will then be assessed before the winners are announced. The winning projects will be supported by Code4Health in developing further into something that can actually be used in the NHS.

Read more on Healthcare and NHS IT