NHS IT to embrace open source

A new report from NHS England promises open source will be at the heart of the plans to digitise the health service

Open source licensing agreements will be a key feature of the new approach to NHS IT, according to a report published today.

The “safer hospitals, safer wards: achieving an integrated digital care record” publication from NHS England said it aimed to “develop a vibrant market of products and solutions” for organisations across the country to use, all made available under an open source licence model.

It hopes embracing open source will both cut the upfront costs of implementing new IT systems, as well as take advantage of using the best brains from different areas of healthcare to develop collaborative solutions.

“NHS England will draw together details of available solutions and case studies that will aid organisations in assessing their options,” read the report.

“In addition, and most importantly, NHS England will support the development of these products to ensure that they are ready for market, that they have the necessary support frameworks behind them and that they have an appropriate roadmap for future development.”

Taking inspiration from the US

The approach has taken inspiration from the US VistA project, formed in the 1980s, to develop an integrated medical records system owned and developed alongside clinicians.

NHS England has visited the organisation and is now looking into whether the solution could be customised to fit into the UK healthcare system.

Other elements of the report included the reiteration of using a standard patient identifier – namely the NHS number – for the electronic records system to work and promised support from NHS England to local communities embarking on the digital initiative, as well as the encouragement for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to get involved in the procurement process.

It will be down to the hospitals or other healthcare clusters to choose which technology they want to use, but they must be based on open standards and include the NHS number caveat to be accepted as part of the new scheme.

Different approach

This is a very different approach to the previous attempt of digitising the NHS with the National Programme for IT (NPfIT), which attempted to centralise records systems and take a more top-down approach dictating which technology different health institutions should use.

The report detailed NHS England’s “path to integrated digital care records (IDCRs)", bringing all patient data together in one place, accessible by all health and social organisations, as well as the individual.

It admitted “driving up the digital maturity of the NHS will not happen overnight,” and different organisations were at different points in their move towards this goal. 

But with the £260m Safer Hospitals, Safer Wards Technology Fund there to offer a helping hand and a new benchmarking service on the cards for showing each healthcare group how well they are doing, the belief is that organisations will get there.

“The key aim is to support all organisations moving up the maturity levels no matter what their starting point,” said the report.

Any organisation wanting to bid for funding has to submit an “expression of interest” before the end of July, with final monies being awarded in October 2013.

The publication also highlighted the findings of the recent report into the failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust – which showed neglect by staff could have led to up to 1,400 deaths.

It claimed there was an “urgent need for the widespread use of digital systems” to enable information to be shared between healthcare professionals and patients and preventing such mistakes from being made again.  

“Compared with other sectors, the NHS has been slow to adopt new developments in information technology,” read yesterday’s publication. “There is a critical need for the pace to quicken.”

Sir David Nicholson, CEO of NHS England, said: “[We are] committed to transparency – the safe sharing of data and information between clinicians and with patients – and participation – supporting patients and the public to take more control of their health and care. Both depend on making the best use of digital technologies that have transformed so many other parts of our lives.

“This is how we will deliver high quality care for all – now and for future generations.”

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