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Q&A: NHS England’s new drive for open data standards in healthcare

Speaking this week at the NHS Confederation’s annual conference, Stephen Dorrell, the organisation’s chair, said: “To improve the standard of care that we deliver to people we must better integrate our health and social care services.”

With that in mind, NHS England, the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), plus tech trade body techUK, are backing a new alliance of software suppliers who want to help connect data across the health service.

The problem today is that there are hundreds of different systems in use and many of them aren’t able to talk to each other.

That means, if you turn up at an A&E in Doncaster, they may well not be able to pull up your notes from your GP, for instance.

Massive centralised efforts, like that of the failed National Programme for IT, are out and localised attempts to open up data using common interoperability standards are in.

This means local ownership of the challenge, a drive towards efficiencies that should help save money, all without the need to replace old systems.

INTEROPen is designed to support the Code4Health Interoperability Community that was launched late last year by NHS England, conforms to techUK’s open Interoperability Charter and will use international standards where they exist.

You might ask why another initiative is needed when many just call for open APIs, in fact, someone has.

No doubt that will be up for discussion, but in the meantime, INTEROPen launches with 30 suppliers, with the team looking for more to collaborate across four key areas:

  • Data exchange
  • Data validation
  • Defining APIs
  • Governance

We nabbed a spokesperson at INTEROPen to ask about some of the details.

How many systems are currently in use in the NHS?

Hospital trusts often have hundreds of individual systems. Interoperability is therefore a massive challenge, especially when you include primary, community, mental health and social care.

They are largely isolated systems and our aim is to provide a common set of interoperability standards to enable as many of the systems as possible to be joined up.

What do the interoperability standards look like?

They will be a set of clinically validated specifications that ensure that patient information from system A means the same when it is transferred to recipient system B.

The actual implementation of the specifications by the suppliers will be validated through public demonstrations towards the end of the year.

Our current focus is to use the HL7 FHIR standards that are recognised by industry as easier to implement at scale.

However, the purpose of INTEROPen is to draw on the expertise of the technical and clinical informaticians within vendor companies to develop and use the best standards as technology evolves with time.

When will this happen?

We aim to establish a first cut of FHIR patient record standards to enable the movement of key patient information across care domains (GP, acute, community, mental health, social care and patient access), in collaboration with NHS Digital [new brand for Health & Social Care Information Centre as of July 2016] and the Professional Records Standards Body, for the purpose of a demonstrator of this in action by the end of this year.

An initial set of standards will be released in the next few months. Over time we add to this core set so that all of health and social care is covered.