British Government aims for ‘truly data-enabled and digital’ clinical research environment post-COVID-19

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 23, 2021
Hot on the heels of the Health Secretary’s pitch for a digitally enabled NHS, the British Government is also hoping to learn from its research experience during COVID-19.

Image of a microscope in a science lab
(Image by Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay )

It seems we are already in the era of ‘lessons learned from the pandemic', despite still being in the midst of a UK-wide lockdown, as the British government begins to release more details of how it's going to use digital tools and data to improve on the delivery of healthcare post-COVID-19. 

As my colleague Stuart Lauchlan noted earlier this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has begun to plant the seed (again) for what a digitally-enabled NHS could look like in the future. We at diginomica don't hold out much hope for that under the current leadership - and it's definitely worth reading Stuart's scathing takedown of Hancock's plans in full

In addition to this, the government has now released its plans for the ‘future of clinical research delivery', having seemingly learned that investment in clinical research could well be a good thing! 

The document released to - ‘Saving and Improving Lives: the Future of UK Clinical Research Delivery' - has been developed by the British Government and devolved administrations and aims to outline how the UK will deliver faster, more efficient and innovative research. It takes into account the streamlining of costing, contracting and approvals processes, but also of course throws in a hefty dose of digital and data possibilities. 

The aim is to half the time to provide a final opinion for research applications, whilst also making research more accessible and better representative of the UK population. 

Enjoying the limelight this week (for a change), Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: 

Clinical research is the backbone of healthcare - it is the way we improve the detection, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease and improves the lives of patients across the country. This has never been more true than in our response to the pandemic.

By taking advantage of our world-renowned research expertise, and a strong partnership between business, academia, the NHS and government, we are determined to make the UK the best possible place to carry out clinical research that will improve the health of people here and across the world.

Ground-breaking technologies, data and analytics will transform healthcare and save lives. Now is the time to seize the opportunity and make this vision a reality.

The details

The strategy released this week states that the COVID-19 pandemic has "brought into focus" the strength and importance of the UK's research base - pointing to the example of the UK being the first to discover dexamethasone as a proven treatment for COVID-19 and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Science and research are also key elements of the UK's post-Brexit strategy, where it hopes to build a knowledge-based economy that can compete effectively on the global stage, separate from the European Union. 

The strategy has a number of key elements, which are built around several priority areas that clued: improving the speed and efficiency of setting up studies; building upon digital platforms to deliver clinical research; and making research more diverse and more relevant to the whole of the UK. 

It is hoped that this will "break down barriers" and deliver a patent-centred and pro-innovation clinical research environment. 

On the digital and data plans, the paper outlines how digital systems underpin the delivery of modern clinical research, where they help to design and deliver protocols, identify and recreation research participants and support public involvement. 

These systems, it adds, go hand in hand with accessible, interoperable and high-quality health data - to better understand disease. 

The government points to how during COVID-19 systems such as the UK vaccines registry and the NHSD's Trusted Research Environment played a critical role in accelerating the process of getting a vaccine to market. 

However, the government believes more can be done. The strategy states:

But whilst positive steps have been taken, we need to go much further and faster to unleash the true potential of data-enabled clinical research delivery.

We need to scale current platforms, creating the mechanisms to connect eligible patients with opportunities to participate in clinical research of relevance to them. And we will work on improving interoperability between systems, to support clinical research delivery, at both a national and local level. 

We can create a truly digitally-enabled and future-ready clinical research environment. This will act as a vital enabler to deliver faster, more efficient and more innovative clinical research - which increases access and brings new gene sequencing, cell-based therapies, precision medicines, digital tools and artificial intelligence to bear to tackle the NHS's most pressing healthcare challenges.

Some of the systems mentioned include: OpenSafely, NHSD's DigiTrials, NWeHealth, Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD), UK BioBank, NIHR Bioresource, Genes and Health and Genomics England, as well as Wales' SAIL databank, delivered in partnership with Digital Health and Care Wales. 

The government hopes that this work - alongside the other elements of the strategy - will result in the UK having the "most advanced and data-enabled clinical research environment in the world", where it can capitalise on data assets to deliver improvements to the health and care of patients across the UK. 

My take

More digital! More data! To be fair, at least this plan has been developed with broad collaboration across the NHS and medical community and has the support of all of the UK governments. That's a solid start. The next step is to launch implementation plans and strategies, laying out how this will be achieved during 2021 and 2022. The intention is good, but execution will be key…



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