NHS pilot may allow drugmakers to analyse patient data

An NHS Trust in Southampton is trialling a new analytics service that could open the door for pharmaceutical companies to analyse patient data.

The pilot is the first of its kind since prime minister David Cameron announced a plan to encourage data sharing between the NHS and the biomedical industry in December last year. "We’re going to consult on actually changing the NHS constitution so that the default setting is for patient’s data to be used for research, unless of course, they want to opt out," Cameron said at the time.

University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust is trialling a new service from iSoft, the healthcare software vendor acquired by IT services giant CSC last year.

The Trust will be able to use a clinical data mining application called AccelFind (made by a company called CliniWorks, not iSoft itself) free of charge, in return for performing analyses on behalf of biomedical companies. The plan is that biomedical companies will approach iSoft with analyses they would like to perform on patient data, and the Trust will run queries on its records.

When Cameron announced his plan to allow anonymised NHS data to be used in commercial research, privacy experts warned that this data could easily be de-anonymised. "A small amount of contextual information can ruin anonymisation," warned Cambridge information security professor Ross Anderson.

However, under this scheme the biomedical companies will receive only aggregate data, not individual patient records, anonymised or otherwise. Adrian Byrne, CIO at Southampton NHS Trust, told Information Age that no patient data would be leaving the hospital’s IT environment under the scheme.

iSoft’s director of life sciences, Joerg Kraenzlein, made the same reassurance. "We are not accessing any patient data. The idea is that we can ask questions [of the hospital] on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, and try to get information around patient populations and disease patterns. But the data itself never leaves the hospital."

"The key point is that all the de-identification and extraction is done by the hospital," Kraenzlein told Information Age.

AccelFind is already up and running at the Trust, CIO Byrne explained, pulling in clinical information from a range of sources including the hospital’s Oracle patient databases and IBM Informix database management system. This promises to improve the hospital’s own research by allowing more automated search and analysis.

"[Previously], you would have to call the patient notes on a cohort of patients that you’re interested in, then get a medical student or a consultant to sit and look through those records for trends. They’re only basing their search on a certain descision support algorithm that’s in their mind, and the idea of AccelFind is that you can apply those same rules across many thousands of records."

"Research programmes take a long time to complete, and anything you can do to lower that time will bring down the cost of research and development," he adds.

The Trust has yet to run any queries from biomedical companies via iSoft. However, iSoft says it is in discussions with a number of medical research firms.

iSoft hopes that demand for clinical data analysis from the biomedical industry will pay for the AccelFind deployments in hospitals. "We don’t want to get money from the hospitals, it’s really the pharmaceutical companies we are trying to make business with," explained Kraenzlein. 

Beatrice Bartlay

Beatrice Bartlay founded 2B Interface, a temporary and permanent staffing agency in 2005 and has since been serving the UK recruitment sector with specialised services. With more than ten years’ experience...

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