Unleashing the power of open source in the NHS

Hazel Jones, head of health at Made Tech, discusses how the health sector needs a change of mindset in order to maximise the benefits of open source

The NHS's reliance on proprietary software is hampering its digital ambitions, according to Hazel Jones, head of health at Made Tech

Working to Open Standards has long been the ambition of the Government and the healthcare sector.

Providers and businesses working in a range of sectors are already realising the benefits of freely sharing and gaining access to information that allows them to enhance their current technologies or create new solutions to improve their offering.

Hazel Jones

Despite the ambition, though, the NHS is still hamstrung with proprietary software providers showing little appetite to forgo their commercial stronghold, despite the obvious benefit to the system.

NHS trusts and other healthcare bodies, in many cases, are facing restrictions in their collaborations where they are unable to share data on their digital projects, hampering the ability of other providers to learn from these, or develop their own version of them.

This lack of openness is stifling innovation within the NHS, affecting staff, patients, and services.

Opening up digital projects so they can be accessed and utilised by other trusts could produce huge benefits to services across the UK.

The NHS is still hamstrung with proprietary software providers showing little appetite to forgo their commercial stronghold, despite the obvious benefit to the system

It would allow others to learn from successful projects elsewhere and see how they could implement similar solutions, quickening digital transformation, improving patient care, and saving money across the health service.

It may seem counterintuitive for decision makers within NHS bodies to freely share the results of their investment and effort in designing digital products and services, feeling reluctant to give away the fruits of their labour.

Or, perhaps, they are reluctant to open up their digital projects for fear of criticism.

The NHS's reliance on proprietary software is hampering its digital ambitions, according to Hazel Jones, head of health at Made Tech

As with trying anything new for the first time, there is always a chance that implementing a new platform could go wrong, or that it may not produce the intended results once installed.

So, if we are going to create a health service that can unleash the potential of open source, we need to fundamentally change our ways of working, moving away from proprietary suppliers to those that are able to engender openness and collaboration.

Vendors need to be working with trusts to clearly explain and champion how opening up their projects can benefit their fellow service providers and the NHS as a whole

Fostering an environment where sharing information on digital projects is embraced will allow the whole of the health service to benefit from innovative solutions, without lock-in.

Building a culture of working in the open will allow for reciprocal relationships across hospitals and trusts, not just regionally, but nationally.

Imagine an investment of a single project for a hospital or trust leading to free and open access to innovations from over a thousand nationally. Designed within the NHS, for the NHS; and open without vendor lock-in.

The NHS has started to take steps to demonstrate the benefits of open source to trusts, such as through its Open Source Programme. However, the health service cannot do it alone.

This is where digital partners have an important role to play.

Vendors need to be leading the charge in helping bodies to adopt an open-standards approach to digital projects.

One way they can do this is by, when embarking on a digital project, not locking down their digital solutions or platforms once they are in place and, instead, making the project information, data, and code easily accessible by others outside the organisation.

They also need to be working with trusts to clearly explain and champion how opening up their projects can benefit their fellow service providers and the NHS as a whole, guiding them on a journey to not just open their projects, but open their minds to new ways of working.

We need to do all we can to ensure that trusts are embracing an open approach when it comes to their digital projects and are ready and willing to share their learnings with others

Open source has the power to revolutionise NHS services across the UK, accelerating digital transformation and, ultimately, improving services and care for patients.

As such, we need to do all we can to ensure that trusts are embracing an open approach when it comes to their digital projects and are ready and willing to share their learnings with others.

This starts with changing mindsets, and digital partners must be at the forefront of this change, educating and guiding decision makers.

If we can achieve this, we will be able to rapidly create the health service of tomorrow, today.

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