New code of conduct to allow the NHS to benefit from data-driven technologies

Health minister Lord O'Shaughnessy launches new code of conduct for data-driven technologies, described as 'a really important first step towards creating a safe and trusted environment in which innovation can flourish’.


[Manchester, UK] The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed a new code of conduct for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other data-driven technologies to ensure the NHS benefits from the partnerships it forges with tech firms, health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy announced today (5 September) at the Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester.

The code, described as ‘a really important first step towards creating a safe and trusted environment in which innovation can flourish’, sets out ten principles outlining ‘rules of engagement’ between industry and the health and care system.

Lord O’Shaughnessy said:

“The code is voluntary to begin with, but we want organisations to sign up to demonstrate their world-leading approach and we ask industry to work with us over the next few months to refine these principles so that the code can represent a standard we are all proud to uphold.”

The DHSC says this will ensure that the NHS and taxpayers ‘get a good deal’ on future collaborations, while allowing the government to work with suppliers to guide the development process and ensure solutions are ‘suitable to the NHS'.

It also sets out 'clear guidelines on how NHS patient data is protected’, and Lord O’Shaughnessy told delegates at the conference that the principles would ‘provide a basis to deepen the trust between patients, clinicians, researchers and innovators’.

BJ-HC understands the DHSC organised last week a roundtable bringing together a variety of stakeholders, including representatives from patient groups, such as Asthma UK and the Association of Medical Research Charities, and tech companies to discuss the new code.

Dr Natalie Banner, from Understanding Patient Data, told BJ-HC:

“I think it’s a really positive step forward that the NHS is thinking very clearly and carefully about how it works with technology partners because at the moment there’s a lot of exciting innovation that’s going on across the NHS, but it’s happening in pockets, it’s not necessarily joined up, and it’s not clear at the moment that we’re ensuring that the NHS gets the best deal out of the partnerships that it creates with the technology firms. It shows that it really puts the patient benefit at the heart of everything that it’s doing with these partnerships."

Dr Banner said there were some ‘really great examples’ of this work already being done, pointing to the partnership between DeepMind Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Recent research showed that a new AI system developed through this collaboration could read complex eye scans as accurately as world-leading experts and refer patients for further treatment, recognising more than 50 eye conditions.

The system would have to be turned into a platform that would need to go through clinical trials and regulatory approval before it could be used in clinical practice; however, if validated, DeepMind said the trust would be able to use it for free for an initial period of five years.

Separately, earlier this year, former science minister Lord Drayson’s Sensyne Health signed a new research collaboration with Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to analyse anonymised genetic data using its clinical AI and drive advancements in medical research, with OUH receiving a £5m equity stake in Sensyne Health – building on an existing agreement – and benefiting from royalties generated by new discoveries.

The company has similar agreements in place with Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust.

In a statement, Lord Drayson said:

“The introduction of this code is an important step by the government in ensuring that all companies wishing to analyse NHS patient data do so ethically, transparently and for patient benefit. We are happy to sign up to this new code and welcome its introduction by the government.”

Commenting on today’s announcement, however, HIMSS Chief Clinical Officer Charles Alessi said:

“If NHS data is used, of course the NHS must benefit, it’s a no-brainer, but the whole process needs to be agile enough so that it doesn’t stifle innovation.”

During his speech at the conference, Lord O'Shaughnessy pointed to the NHS's opportunity to bring together 'an unrivalled longitudinal dataset'.

Its potential, however, is believed to be 'theoretical' at this stage. One of the first tasks remains digitising health and social care data and ensuring that it is 'connected and easily accessible'.

Speaking to BJ-HC about the new code of conduct and challenges around the quality of NHS data used to train algorithms, Andy Kinnear, Director of Digital Transformation at South, Central and West Commissioning Support Unit, said:

“I think the health service is on an upward curve around data quality. What we are witnessing through this digital revolution that we’re part of is a year on year improvement in the quality, the consistency, the accuracy, the ability to navigate that data and to share it across the whole service. So actually those barriers around data quality in supporting AI initiatives will reduce year on year as this stuff gets delivered.”

Editor's note, September 7, 2018: This article has been updated to include a statement from former science minister Lord Drayson, CEO of Sensyne Health.

Leontina Postelnicu

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