NHS: Management of its new Federated Data Platform will be key to success

On the face of it, the announcement that the National Health Service (NHS) plans to roll out a new software platform to improve patient care in the spring of 2024 should be a cause for celebration. The idea behind the creation of the Federated Data Platform is simple: bring together numerous strands of existing NHS data to make it easier for staff to access key information critical for patient care.

By collating meaningful real-time data — such as the number of available beds, the size of elective waiting lists, staff rosters, and the availability of medical supplies — staff should be able to maximise resources better to ensure patients receive more timely care.

The contract — confirmed in November 2023 — for this new technology platform was awarded to a group led by Palantir Technologies UK, with support from Accenture, PwC, NECS, and Carnall Farrar. AWS and Microsoft will provide cloud platform services.

This is the kind of data-led digital transformation that the IT industry has been advocating for years. By linking up systems and freeing data it’s possible to bring about real change. It’s an approach that has been successfully rolled out in sectors such as finance, retail, and logistics.

So why shouldn’t similar technology be used to bring together information that’s critical in providing seamless patient care?

To put it simply, it’s come under scrutiny from campaigners such as doctors, MPs and civil society groups who are concerned, among other things, about the safeguards concerning sharing confidential patient health information and whether such data might be sold.

Trust and privacy are critical to data sharing

For any organisation undergoing such transformational change, data security is paramount. And in the case of the NHS, the nature of the data it holds is so sensitive that it’s understandable that people should seek the necessary safeguards and reassurances that their information will be sufficiently protected.

In a bid to address any concerns, those behind the project published a blog in which they laid out their commitment to data protection:

“We know that working with an institution as important as the NHS on an issue as sensitive as data-sharing makes it critical for us to provide trust and confidence in how our software works and how we operate as a company.”

While the two sides continue to argue their case, for me, this project shines a light on the importance of data — not just in the NHS but across the board. It is a reminder that data security is paramount.

That said, it is not the only issue facing the IT professionals responsible for implementing the Federated Data Platform.

Implementing automation will be key to ensuring better patient experiences

For example, automation plays a crucial role in the realm of data management. Without such tools, the seamless collection of data — achieved through the integration of diverse sources such as electronic health records and diagnostic equipment — would simply be unattainable.

Indeed, automated tools are indispensable for handling and analysing the substantial data volumes generated each day by the NHS. It is these under-the-hood tools that help rectify inconsistencies, eliminate duplications, and address errors to improve data quality. And that’s important because without such tools, it would be almost impossible to tackle the backlog of people waiting for appointments or treatments.

The important case for replacing legacy systems

Another issue to consider is the NHS’ continued dependence on legacy systems. Even though they were once deemed to be ‘cutting edge’, many are now past their prime even though they continue to support essential services. There are plenty of reasons why replacing legacy systems is important, ranging from obsolescence to escalating operational costs.

Today, it is the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that is exposing the shortcomings of legacy systems, especially in terms of enabling data sharing and providing real-time access to data. If this new technology is to be employed to help improve healthcare, then the issue of legacy systems needs to be addressed.

I would go further still. The UK government has made no secret that it is eager to harness AI and ML to deliver health solutions in areas such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health, and neurological disorders.

But for this to happen, it needs ready access to good-quality data to train AI models. In one sense that is good news for the NHS. The data already exists. In fact, the NHS is awash with data.

However, the issue of legacy systems means that a lot of that data — which may be contained within hard-to-reach siloes — is not necessarily primed for use by the latest AI tools. For example, data in legacy systems can be stored in a range of formats that are not necessarily compatible with each other.

And weaknesses in legacy environments can make it difficult to fully integrate them with modern systems.

But there is also an issue of data security specific to AI systems. After all, it’s imperative that a system that will be in constant use and critical to running the health service is also robust enough to withstand any malicious intent. Any automation or AI project must be implemented carefully to ensure data security — as well as the privacy and ethical considerations highlighted earlier.

One approach to overcome this obstacle would be, for example, to conduct the training phase of AI projects ‘behind closed doors’ in offline networks before a full roll-out using real-time data to ensure that security measures have been properly implemented.

Simplifying compliance through SIEM tools

Another approach would be to leverage enterprise-wide security information and event management (SIEM) tools.

SIEM tools monitor threats round the clock by gathering logs from apps and systems — located across hybrid environments in a centralised location — and issuing immediate alerts when an issue is discovered.

With so much going on, technical teams need to be able to see what’s happening across all platforms and systems. This can be achieved via observability, an approach that provides all-important valuable insights into the inner workings of complex systems.

Of course, the NHS is not alone in the issues it faces. Any business or organisation looking to adopt such a digital transformation needs to consider issues such as data privacy, security, and legacy systems.

And while the roll-out of the NHS’ Federated Data Platform will, no doubt, continue to receive much public interest, I’m more interested in what’s happening behind the headlines. I look forward to seeing how this project develops and what strides are taken as the programme is implemented within the wider infrastructure of the NHS.

Sasha Giese is Global Tech Evangelist, Observability, at SolarWinds.

SolarWinds is a leading provider of simple, powerful and secure solutions designed to help organizations accelerate business transformation in today’s hybrid IT world.

With over 300,000 customers around the world, its solutions give organisations, regardless of type, size or IT infrastructure complexity, the power to monitor and manage the performance of their IT environments, whether on-premises, in the cloud or in hybrid deployments.


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