NHS England is considering offering cash to trusts to develop “open source” software which it says offers flexibility and speeds up their development of electronic patient record systems.

In a HSJ interview Beverley Bryant, NHS England director of strategic systems and technology, also said she was overseeing an audit charting every trust’s progress towards paperless records, the first version of which will be published in November.

Funding for open source projects could be made available from the £260m technology fund, the prospectus of which was launched today.

Open source software - usually created collaboratively between different trusts and technology companies - involves a programme in which the source code is available to the general public to use and modify free of charge.

The use of open source products would mean trusts do not become locked into one IT provider’s ‘proprietary’ programme, a scenario which has had disastrous effects in some trusts in recent years.

Ms Bryant added open source software could be quicker to implement as it did not involve 18-month procurements like existing single provider systems.

However, she stressed she was not ruling out single provider solutions, stating she wanted a “mixed economy”.

She cited the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) developed by the US Veterans Health Administration, as well as projects at Moorfields Eye Hospital and University Hospitals Birmingham foundation trusts.

She said: “If we think it’s doable [after some feasibility work] we will ask trusts to apply as part of the tech fund to use some of the money to create it.

“The value is that the clinicians develop it and add to it over time and it all and it’s not owned by anyone. There is no IP [intellectual property] ownership.”

NHS England patients and information director Tim Kelsey initially indicated its criteria would be narrower, with the fund being aimed at funding e-prescribing and real time patient record keeping system.

However, NHS bosses have now widened the remit. Expressions of interest need to be submitted by 31 July and the winners will be announced in October.   

Ms Bryant said bids would not be assessed on how digitally advanced trusts were, with NHS England keen to support high performers, as well as those which have made little progress on the digital agenda.

High performers trusts will be able to submit bids to help finance “interoperability pilots”, an idea first floated by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in January. Thes would see trusts across a region “have a fully portable electronic record across the entire secondary, primary and social care system before the next general election”.

Ms Bryant said NHS England was developing a digital audit model which was a hybrid of HIMSS, a US model which measures digital maturity in healthcare systems, and one developed by healthcare technology title, E-Health Insider.

“We are looking at: is a trust mainly paper-based, or have they digitalised some clinical and admin systems, or are they comprehensively digitalised across a hospital or organisation and beyond that their integration and interoperability across a wider system?” she said.

Ewan Davis, a health informatics expert and government adviser, said: “I would support the use of more open software in the NHS but it is important to understand the best way forward is to consider a mix of proprietary and open source components as part of a modern digital ecosystem.  

“Support for open source as part of future developments will encourage proprietary vendors to open up their systems and make it easier for innovative and new suppliers to join the market and that could have a very significant impact on the market place.”