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NHS is about to take an important step into the cloud, says Microsoft

NHS is about to take an important step into the cloud, says Microsoft

The government has taken an ‘important’ step in providing clarity to the NHS on storing patient information in the cloud, Microsoft has said.

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has signed off on guidance that helps public health organisations move data from on-site servers to cloud services in data centres run by companies such as Microsoft.

Although some NHS organisations already use cloud services, this is the first time they have been given official guidance to embrace the technology. It is hoped the NHS will save money and benefit from greater security, as well as allowing staff to be more productive, as they can access the cloud at any time, from any location.

Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, is currently used by police forces across London as well as the Ministry of Defence – which cited security and value for money as reasons for the move. Major private companies including oil giant BP and British Gas owner Centrica are also Azure customers.

In today’s guidance, NHS Digital stated: “NHS and social care organisations can safely locate health and care data, including confidential patient information in the public cloud, including solutions that make use of data off-shoring.

“Cloud providers have a significant budget to pay for updating, maintaining, patching and securing their infrastructure. This means cloud services can mitigate many common risks that the NHS and social care organisations often face. Cloud services may provide other advantages for NHS and social care organisations including lower IT costs and the ability to develop, test and deploy services quickly without large capital expense.

“As more services for patients and staff move to the Internet and the need for better data interoperability increases, it is likely that use of cloud services will become more prevalent in NHS and social care organisations.”

The guidance spelled out the steps NHS organisations should take to prepare to use cloud services, as well as clarity when it comes to the storage of data in servers located in other countries.

The move was welcomed by Microsoft, which added that such organisations would benefit from the security, flexibility and lower cost of the cloud.

“Today’s guidance is an important milestone for the NHS,” said Suzy Foster, Director of Health and Life Science at Microsoft UK. “By moving to the cloud, the NHS can begin to innovate and modernise health services in England to truly meet the needs of patients in a sustainable and cost-effective way.

“Microsoft’s cloud is already helping many public and private sector organisations to deliver services more effectively and meet the evolving needs of citizens. Azure’s security, 24/7 availability and advanced capabilities make it the obvious choice for the healthcare sector and we look forward to helping more NHS organisations use the cloud to transform how they work.”

Microsoft has started working with many NHS customers to move workloads to the cloud, such as large file repositories. This also includes implementing backup and recovery solutions to help ensure all information is secure and always available, analysing data and taking advantage of inbuilt privacy controls so only the NHS organisation who placed the data in the cloud can access it.

Moving Citrix, a popular networking tool that allows NHS staff to work from anywhere, to Azure has been one of the most popular requests.

The NHS is facing constraints on care resources amid an increased demand for services as more people live longer. This is placing “existing health and social care services under increasing strain”, NHS Digital said.

Its strategy plan, which runs until 2020, aims to ‘revolutionise the way technology, data and information are used to transform the delivery of England’s health and social care services.’ To achieve this, NHS Digital was to shake up the way data is collected, accessed and analysed; create an ‘agile, flexible and engaged workforce’; and using technology to transform NHS infrastructure.

The chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee recently said that using artificial intelligence in the NHS could cut costs and lead to better care for patients.

Norman Lamb was responding to a report by the Reform think tank, which said AI could be used to improve diagnoses, predict which individuals might be at risk of illness and help people ‘self-care’. Cleaning up and digitising patient data was a ‘top priority’, Lamb added.

Heide Abelli, Senior Vice President of Content Product Management at Skillsoft is in agreement with the idea that AI is helping to improve workplace training, “Most of us are familiar with Siri and Alexa, intelligent voice assistants that can help us with ‘one dimensional’ questions such as where is the nearest petrol station, what will the weather be like today…? Within the next couple of years, digital learning agents powered by AI will take that to the next level and beyond. They’ll know who you are, what learning content is relevant to you, what time of day you like to learn, how you like to learn and so on. Looking further ahead into the future, digital learning agents will take on additional roles including that of interactive coach or mentor. Expensive human coaches will likely become a thing of the past. The AI-powered digital coach will monitor performance and record improvement over time. When switched on, the digital coach will be behind-the-scenes during every conversation, listening to and recording verbal comments – all in the spirit of personal improvement. It could be used, for example, to understand how often certain words are used in a feedback session, or identify if cognitive bias is introduced in a conversation. It will even be able to record biometric information – how much eye contact is made and interpret facial expressions – to give the most personalised feedback possible.”

IT healthcare firms System C and Graphnet use Azure to run their epilepsy app, among other solutions. MyCareCentric Epilepsy, as the program is known, looks at sleep patterns, exercise, heart rate and temperature and aims to ‘learn’ when patients are about to have a seizure.

“The cloud is absolutely central to the present and future delivery strategy for solutions from the System C and Graphnet Care Alliance,” said Ian Denley, joint Chief Executive.

“We see the cloud as key to digital transformation because it will act as the catalyst for providing APIs to share and stream data securely across healthcare boundaries and breakdown information silos. It will also liberate the NHS from the costs, risks and complications of managing hardware, computer rooms and infrastructure and will streamline the delivery of safe and effective IT for patient care.”

Kainos is a Microsoft Cloud Platform Gold Partner and is recognised as one of the UK’s leading digital services and digital platforms companies, having delivered major transformation programmes across healthcare, government and the private sector.

Adam Donnelly, Client Director of Cloud Services, said: “Kainos is delighted that guidance for NHS organisations using public cloud has been published. This will enable the NHS to drive better outcomes and experiences for patients whilst reducing cost and risk in their IT estates. We enthusiastically embrace the UK government’s ‘Cloud First’ strategy and have found using public cloud to be a key enabler of success; the flexibility, low costs and enhanced security help organisations to be more agile and drive rapid change.”