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.