Exclusive: Former Skyscanner CTO to help deliver Scotland’s new digital health service

The former chief technology officer at Skyscanner, the global travel search giant, has joined the NHS in Scotland to help deliver a new national digital health service.

Dr Alistair Hann, who worked at the Edinburgh-headquartered tech ‘unicorn’ until it was sold for £1.4bn last year to Chinese online travel company Ctrip, is spearheading a project to roll out the new ‘National Digital Service’ for citizens and NHS staff alike.

Nicknamed ‘The Doctor’ when he worked at Skyscanner, Hann holds a Doctorate in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Oxford, and worked as CTO from 2011-2017, as it grew from 60 to 800 staff. He joined founder Gareth Williams early in the company’s development after it acquired his own travel firm, Zoombu, and revealed the platform was born out of his ‘personal frustration’ of not being able to easily find the best flight deals.

After securing investment, the pair developed a global-scale platform and turned Skyscanner into a household name, developing the search web portal into a mobile-first app that is used by tens of millions of consumers worldwide.

Hann, whose LinkedIn profile has been updated, saying, ‘CTO of NES Digital Service – join us building a national digital platform for NHS Scotland and Social Care’, is working alongside Geoff Huggins, Director of Health & Social Care at the Scottish Government and Liz Elliot, who has been appointed Chief Operating Officer for the new service. Liz was previously the COO for Health Data Research UK and has held a number of senior management positions in both the public and private sectors, including COO at the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, at Edinburgh University.

He says: “We are growing a product engineering team as part of this to build and run secure cloud-based health data platform and products for clinicians, carers, citizens and researchers. Please contact me if you are interested in joining us.”

The Scottish Government launched its new Digital Health & Care strategy at FutureScot’s Digital Leaders Summit in April this year. One of the key strands – as recommended by an external Expert Panel, Chaired by Prof. David W Bates, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University Medical School – was to create a ‘national digital platform’ through which ‘relevant real-time data and information from health and care records, and the tools and services they use, is available to those who need it, when they need, wherever they are, in a secure and safe way.’

Since then, a new public-facing portal – called nds.nes.digital – has been set up to explain the purpose of the new service, under the auspices of the national health Board NHS Education for Scotland (NES). It explains: “Until now, healthcare systems in Scotland have been piecemeal and unconnected. For both citizens and staff, it is often frustrating to either access information or to share that information when it is most needed.

“That’s why we have been asked to work across the whole of the health and care sector to build a new National Digital Platform. This will allow us to create new clinical systems which are easy to use for everyone, and which will help improve the care that people get.”

It is not yet known how the new service will operate – and which agencies, clients and private sector contractors will have ultimately have access to it; the plans will inevitably tie in with the Scottish Government’s stated desire to integrate social care and health (an ongoing multi-million pound, long-term project involving NHS and local government), but it’s clear from information on the website that the project will start small with a focus on one or two ‘priority projects’.

It states: “We are a new team, working to improve how your medical information is managed so that it is available to you, when you need it, safely and securely. We think you should be able to do things like book appointments, get test results, manage your medication and renew prescriptions.

“To make this happen we will work very closely with people who work in health and care services and people like you who use those services. We will start small. How we work is important. We believe that in the same way as the doctors and nurses of the NHS have developed new treatments that cure disease and improve the quality of our lives, the NHS can develop its own technology.

“In the next few months we will be establishing ourselves as an organisation and begin to work on one or two priority projects. We are recruiting. Watch this space.”

Dr Alistair Hann, former CTO of Skyscanner, is leading the new National Digital Service for NHS Education for Scotland (NES).

From Dr Hann’s own background specialisms, in ‘Machine Learning, Signal Processing, System Architecture, Technical Planning’, there may be elements of the new system which incorporate artificial intelligence, allowing computers to take over from humans in certain areas.

Huggins, the service’s director, revealed a little more detail in a recent ‘Hello world’ blog post in which he states the new system will be ‘more secure’ with ‘less risk’ of data loss, which invites speculation that the NHS may be experimenting with emerging technologies such as Blockchain. He also writes that any changes to existing systems means the NHS has to ‘go back to the seller’ and ‘pay for an update’, indicating that the new platform will be ‘directly controlled’ by the health service.

He says: “We want to build a digital platform for health and social care. A digital platform is a shared infrastructure that other systems can be built upon. By establishing the foundations first, we can outline a common set of standards for any subsequent systems. Then we can go on to either build new clinical systems ourselves, or enable others to build systems using the same platform and standards. New systems will naturally plug together, giving us for the first time an integrated approach.”

Hann is actively recruiting for two developer roles to join his tech team; based at Edinburgh Westport, the NDS is seeking a Senior Software Engineer (Principal Lead) and a Software Engineer (Specialist Analyst).