We must recommit to an innovation ready NHS that can benefit everyone

The public health emergency caused by the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) at the start of the year is changing everyone’s lives as we know it, but one of the many lessons we are learning is just how important data is as a tool in protecting public health. From monitoring the movement of patients, to helping understand the true number of those infected, data is providing a number of real-world insights to public health officials around the world. Furthermore, strong epidemiological surveillance and the ability to remotely analyse large datasets, can help researchers understand disease, especially a fast moving one, more effectively. As scientists work around the clock to unearth a treatment, the ability to probe datasets and patient information is helping guide this work. Hopefully the outbreak will be brought under control as soon as possible but it is clear that data is not just changing what we watch on TV or buy online, but how we respond to global public health emergencies. However, despite these clear benefits and the political will to see Scotland utilise its data assets more productively, we are still some away from creating the type of data-driven healthcare system that will improve patient care across the board, and not just in a pandemic. For example, if I told you that a doctor in A&E is unable to access their patient’s GP records, you would be shocked, but that is sometimes the situation in our hospitals today. Too often data, and vital patient information, is siloed or gathered inconsistently and in a way that can’t be used productively. Fortunately, the Scottish Government has recognised the need to use data more productively and have set up the National Digital Platform to de-clutter the landscape. Within the NHS, better data supports better clinical decision making, it enables researchers, both public and private, to work together to develop the medicines of the future and finally it allows the industry to monitor the safety and efficacy of medicines used in the NHS. Fundamentally, all of this should be done with an eye on privacy. We believe that data should only be shared securely and according to the highest standards of governance in order to protect patient confidentiality. In Scotland we have a network of safe havens with the potential to enable researchers, both public and private, access to secure and anonymised datasets. The door to this data is secured through a variety of different mechanisms, but what it does demonstrate is that Scotland is already getting a lot of this right. Whilst safeguards vary depending on the dataset and research being conducted, it’s important to remember that there are always checks in place. The last few weeks have shown us what can be achieved by using healthcare data and once this crisis is over, we must recommit to an innovation ready NHS that can benefit everyone.