NHS England will soon expand the use of a platform allowing academics to ‘securely analyse’ GP data to boost research into major conditions.
The OpenSAFELY platform was used by researchers during the pandemic to analyse anonymised data and help identify new Covid-19 treatments.
It was developed for NHS England in collaboration with the University of Oxford, and its design means that no patient-identifiable information is seen by its users, and the data does not leave the platform at any stage.
By analysing GP data, scientists can gather evidence on effective treatment, prescribing, and patient outcomes.
NHS England now wants to expand these capabilities, ‘with the support of GPs’, to other types of research beyond Covid-19, and will open to new research applications ‘as soon as possible’ next year.
The BMA and RCGP’s joint GP IT Committee has endorsed this expansion, saying the platform can offer benefits to patients while also ‘supporting patient privacy and transparency of research’.
So far OpenSAFELY has enabled over 150 research projects at 22 different organisations.
According to NHS England, its planned expansion could lead to new treatments for major conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and asthma.
The national commissioner said that during the pandemic, OpenSAFELY was crucial in providing data analysis on the effectiveness of vaccines and on which patients were receiving new Covid-19 treatment
Before expanding the platform, NHS England ‘will now carefully test’ which types of research it could support.
‘OpenSAFELY is designed to keep patient data confidential and secure, and the de-identified data does not leave the platform at any stage,’ the NHS has assured.
The announcement added: ‘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.’
Dr Mark Coley, Dr Paul Atkinson and Dr 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.’
The newly-appointed health secretary Victoria Atkins said the service 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,’ she added.
And Professor Ben Goldacre, director of the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science at the University of Oxford, said the platform ‘has shown that it’s possible to address privacy concerns, and also deliver research outputs at scale’.
Extending OpenSAFELY is part of the Government’s wider ‘data saves lives’ strategy – in September, NHS England announced £2m of funding for an engagement campaign to gather views from patients on this strategy.
Other programmes include the Federated Data Platform (FDP) which will enable NHS organisations to bring together operational data that is currently stored in separate systems.
US tech giant Palantir is understood to be the frontrunner to win the £480m contract to run the new platform.
GPs and other doctors have expressed concerns about the FDP – this week the BMA has written to the Government arguing the profession and patients were inadequately consulted.
The Government-funded UK Biobank recently asked GP practices, with the support of RCGP and NHS England, to release patient data via their IT systems in order to support health-related research.