NHS expands use of secure COVID-19 research platform to help find new treatments for major killer conditions

The NHS is to expand the use of a research platform behind the roll-out of new Covid-19 treatments to help drive life-saving advances for other major diseases.

With the support of GPs and academic researchers, the NHS is widening the use of the service to allow scientists to securely analyse data in GP systems – without seeing patient-identifiable information – in a plan which could lead to the discovery of new treatments for other major conditions such as cancer, diabetes and asthma.

Access to this data will help researchers understand more about medicines, treatments and patient outcomes, which could support better clinical practice and provide crucial evidence on the most effective prescribing.

During the pandemic, academic researchers used anonymised NHS data to help identify new treatments for Covid-19 and understand how best to keep communities safe. Data analysis also helped the NHS to prioritise care to the most vulnerable people, and to develop vaccines against the virus.

One of the key systems used to deliver these insights was NHS England’s OpenSAFELY service, developed in collaboration with the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science at the University of Oxford.

OpenSAFELY – which has so far enabled over 150 research projects from 22 different organisations – played a crucial role during the pandemic, helping researchers to understand which patients were most at risk from the virus, evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines, monitor which patients were receiving new Covid-19 treatments, and understand changes in patient care during and after the pandemic.

The NHS will now carefully test which types of research the service could support beyond Covid-19, following feedback from academic researchers, patients, and medical professionals.

OpenSAFELY is designed to keep patient data confidential and secure, and the de-identified data does not leave the platform at any stage.

Researchers write the code for their analyses without directly accessing patient data, and their queries are then submitted for automatic analysis against patient records inside a secure setting that no researcher ever needs to access. Only anonymised results are released from the platform, following output checks.

OpenSAFELY will be open to new research applicants as soon as possible in 2024.

The expansion of OpenSAFELY builds on a wider programme already outlined in the government’s Data Saves Lives strategy to improve health and care using data, involving several platforms through which data for research is accessed. NHS England will continue to explore a range of solutions to support safe access to data for life-saving research.

The public will have an opportunity to find out more about these programmes and have their say at a series of engagement events starting next year to gather views on digital and data transformation in the NHS.

It will also allow the health and care system to meet its commitments in the Data Strategy to develop products with the involvement of the public.

NHS National Medical Director for Transformation Dr Vin Diwakar said: “The data held by the NHS is globally unique and as we saw during the pandemic, this approach enables researchers to benefit from that valuable resource, whilst keeping the data secure, safe and private.

“Expanding this service will unlock the power of patient data to help drive life-saving treatment breakthroughs to help people with a range of conditions and illnesses.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins said: “Our NHS is at the forefront of life-saving medical research, and services like this will help drive future breakthroughs that deliver the best outcomes for patients. It played a vital role during the pandemic, helping us to identify which people were most at risk of the virus and determine the effectiveness of vaccines.

“I am determined that we now build on this progress. By using patient data while protecting their privacy, we will be able to support people with a range of conditions including cancer, diabetes and asthma – encouraging innovation and life-saving research.”

Professor Ben Goldacre, Director of the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science, said: “OpenSAFELY has shown that it’s possible to address privacy concerns, and also deliver research outputs at scale, in collaboration with our diverse community of analyst users across the country. We are excited to be working ever more closely with NHS England on this important service.”

Drs Mark Coley, Paul Atkinson and Imran Khan, co-chairs and vice-chair of the BMA and RCGP’s Joint GP IT Committee, said: “The Committee has witnessed how the OpenSAFELY platform, and the services run by the OpenSAFELY team, have matured to become a valuable component of NHS analysis infrastructure, with associated benefits for patients and the NHS, whilst supporting patient privacy and transparency of research . The Committee therefore supports the use of the OpenSAFELY service to extend to approved research analyses beyond Covid-19.”

Professor Laurie Tomlinson, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “As a clinician who has worked with Electronic Health Record data for many years, it has been frustrating to see that the potential of NHS patient data to improve care and health service delivery has been largely untapped. OpenSAFELY is a transformative approach to patient data, enabling rapid, large-scale research to provide answers to critically important research questions, while protecting patient privacy. I am absolutely delighted that it has become part of the national infrastructure for the secure use of patient records to improve healthcare.”

Seb Bacon, Chief Technical Officer of the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science, said: “The OpenSAFELY platform is a groundbreaking framework for reproducible, safe, open science. NHS England’s commitment to the software and service will support its continued growth, and expand its relevance for the wider open science community.”