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How NHS Digital is building a data foundation for the future of healthcare

How NHS Digital is building a data foundation for the future of healthcare

Without a strong data foundation, digital innovations will struggle to make an impact. But transforming the way data is structured, governed, and shared is a complex challenge — especially in public sector organizations like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).


That’s why we invited Martin Warden, Programme Director for Digital Transformation in General Practice at NHS Digital, to join our Pragmatism in Practice podcast, in which Martin shared how his team is helping the NHS use data to overcome the barriers to innovation in primary care.



A new approach to sharing patient data

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, NHS Digital had been working for several years to make the UK’s 60-70 million patient records easier for clinical staff to access, so they could improve the quality of care.


“COVID has allowed us to really accelerate,” Martin told us. “Before, it was about local data-sharing agreements between clinicians, care settings, and organizations. We’ve now moved to a national data-sharing system, which is hugely beneficial for patient care.”


One of the keys to accelerating the national data-sharing initiative has been the adoption of the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard — an open, global standard for exchanging healthcare information between systems. FHIR gives NHS Digital a way to ensure patient records are structured and defined in a way that can be understood by different IT systems and used by clinicians in any care setting.


This new level of interoperability has been instrumental in helping NHS Digital build a platform for General Practitioners (GPs) and other primary care clinicians to access patient data. And it has also created a strong data foundation for solutions in NHS Digital’s new marketplace.



A digital marketplace for primary care

With its digital solution marketplace for general practice, NHS Digital aims to give GPs access to innovative solutions that can help them improve care quality and patient outcomes. Now, the transparency around data standards and compliance on the marketplace is helping NHS Digital encourage innovative suppliers to get involved.


By providing an easy and understandable way to become compliant — a hugely important factor in GPs’ buying decisions — the marketplace offers an attractive opportunity for suppliers that want to sell into primary care. Already, more than 70 suppliers, offering more than 150 solutions, have expressed an interest in providing services through the new marketplace. 


“Adopting FHIR has been really helpful. Establishing that as the standard has given us a solid foundation for building the technology,” Martin explained. “We're trying to create a marketplace that has got many, many different solutions in it. All of them will need data to be able to provide the type of service we want to see. Our goal is to see general practice have the best solutions available to it, and this marketplace is focused purely on creating that environment.”



Fostering innovation

Implementing change in massive public sector organizations is never easy. And making that change happen quickly is harder still. But one of the lessons the NHS Digital team has learned over the last year is that when everyone is focused on the same mission (like keeping public healthcare running during a global pandemic), it is surprisingly easy to make fast progress.



Martin also had this advice for other technology leaders looking to change the way their organization uses data to generate business value:


Focus on user needs — but think strategically:

NHS Digital works hard to identify and respond to immediate clinician and patient needs, but the team always keeps one eye on its long-term data strategy, ensuring the data platform is able to support future use cases.


Prioritize stakeholder engagement — and build a trusted environment:

Given the sensitivity of patient information, NHS Digital’s marketplace must build a trusted environment to flourish. The team worked with patient groups, GPs, and colleagues from across the NHS to understand what a trusted data environment should look like.


Add value early — and shout about it:

Demonstrating value early in the process is vital. The data-sharing platform NHS Digital built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic very quickly showed stakeholders how the right digital solutions could deliver value to the organization. For Martin, the key is to make sure the benefits are widely shared, helping build trust in the platform, and excitement about future possibilities.



Martin is right to be excited about the future of general practice that NHS Digital is helping to build. It is a future where clinicians can access insights from innovative digital solutions and up-to-date patient records, helping them provide more personalized care that leads to better patient outcomes.


Martin Warden

Martin Warden

Programme Director for Digital Transformation in General Practice, NHS Digital


Martin has worked at NHS Digital since 2008. Before that, he worked in the private sector on large scale transformation programmes and for some of the major IT consultancies.


Over the last few years, Martin has been the Programme Director for GP IT Futures responsible for the procurement of the new Digital Care Services (DCS) framework. The DCS framework is setting the foundations and mechanisms to achieve transformative change in the software solutions available to GPs over the coming two to five years, through increased competition and transparency in the market.


Over the same period, Martin has also been responsible for major transformation programmes in Primary Care such as SNOMED, GP Connect and the replacement for the GP Extraction Service.


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