A collaboration between the NHS and its US counterpart is an important step on the road to modernising the health service, say Tim Kelsey and Mark Davies

The US and the UK may have significant differences in how they provide healthcare but they have a lot in common in terms of wanting to use information to revolutionise the experience of their patients. Both health services see that the liberation of information can improve the quality of care and empower patients to manage their own health. These are critical steps in modernising their services. 

‘These are exciting times for health technology firms and we want to attract the best internationally to the NHS’

A memorandum of understanding is being signed today by our own secretary of state and US secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It agrees to share solutions around the use of information and work on challenges of technology adoption together. The document has also been signed by NHS England, the Health and Social Care Information Centre and its American equivalent, the US Department for Health and Human Services. It sets out the broad sweep of work we are engaging on together. Some of these projects have advanced much further in the UK and our American friends are keen to learn from our experience.

The work includes aligning some of the care quality indicators for conditions like dementia and creating common classifications of open data to improve international analytics. Some may be reassured to hear it doesn’t set out plans to share data itself.

There are some technologies that the US has employed in an imaginative and consumer focused way. For example “blue button” technology has begun to be adopted by some health firms, which help patients electronically access and make use of their own data.

Transfer of power

Work between NHS England, the information centre and the DHHS will examine this blue button concept and identify points of convergence such as clinical content and specifications. We need to produce proof of concept models that will show the real potential of patients being able to download their own health records.

This will create a significant shift of power from “the system” to patients; from clinicians to citizens. It starts to redefine what it means to be “a partner in my own care” as opposed to being a passive recipient. This would work as well in Bradford as it does in Baltimore.

Our experience in England has taught us how important it is to ensure that small and medium sized businesses can contribute to improving digital information systems. Collaborating over priming the market gives us a means of exchanging useful insights.

Exciting times

Part of easing entry for smaller companies includes aligning the technical standards that they have to comply with, having simple ways to clinically assure their systems and reduce the regulatory burden. These are exciting times for health technology firms and we want to attract the best internationally to the NHS and at the same time create opportunities to export some of our best to a US market.

‘Even with the Atlantic Ocean between us there is no excuse for not embracing modern technology’

The information centre works for the health secretary on “busting bureaucracy” and reducing unnecessary burdens on frontline staff. While information must flow properly round the system if we are going to get solid evidence of what works and what doesn’t, there are often unnecessary burdens put on nurses and doctors who are providing the data for collection. Both countries need to address this challenge. 

The collaboration with the US, which started in 2013, looks likely to prove fruitful. Our health systems cannot afford to delay the adoption of technology and as an example the two secretaries will sign the document virtually via a weblink.

Even with the Atlantic Ocean between us there is no excuse for not embracing modern technology and a virtual signing is an eloquent statement of this.

Tim Kelsey is director of patients and information at NHS England and Dr Mark Davies is medical director at the Health and Social Care Information Centre