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(Re)using the right tools for the job

Shan Rahulan, Director of Platforms - Core Services, argues that we shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel every time we build a product.

How can we reduce waste, improve quality and realise the potential of technology in health and care?

Teams often underestimate how hard it is to develop common features such as logging into a system. This is especially important in health and care, which is a regulated environment with clinical safety and information governance considerations.

The author Shan Rahulan

For our Platforms team, the solution is to make it easier for people to build health and care products through the use of existing common tools and services. This can save time and effort and leave specialist teams to focus on solving the difficult problems once, for everyone.

But what do we mean by common tools and how are we approaching this challenge? 


What's in the toolbox?

We think of common tools or technical capabilities as building blocks that help people develop products or services more quickly by reusing solutions that already exist.

In practice this means that technical capabilities are used for a variety of products which are packaged to deliver high-quality services for end users. In health, this can be taken a step further with technical capabilities supporting products which in turn support a variety of clinical pathways such as screening.


How are we going to do this?

One approach to encourage the reuse of common tools is through the NHS service standard. Last year we began working with the NHS Digital service manual team on the inclusion of technical guidance. Our intention was to ensure national teams use common tools when building products and services.

The NHS service standard is a companion to the GOV.UK service standard, designed to help teams across the NHS deliver better services more efficiently. Building upon point 11, ‘Choose the right tools and technology, we began by adding ‘reuse’ as part of ”have made good decisions about what technology to reuse or build and what to buy.” Encouraging reuse may seem a minor act but it is essential if we are to overcome the current siloed duplication observed across health and care.


What does good technical capability look like?

The first tools we chose to work on were NHS login and Personal Demographics Service (PDS). Both are long standing services developed in support of national standards.

NHS login gives people a simple, secure and reusable way to access multiple digital health and care services with 1 set of login details. It is used when commissioned patient-facing services require individuals to be authenticated in compliance with information standard DCB3051.

Personal Demographics Service (PDS) is a national database of NHS patient details such as name, address, date of birth, related people, registered GP and NHS number. It helps healthcare professionals identify patients and match them to their health records and allows them to contact and communicate with patients in compliance with ISB0149.

Inspired by the What Good Looks Like framework developed by colleagues in NHS England’s Transformation Directorate (formerly NHSX), we wanted to define ‘what good looks like for a technical capability’. We plan to use these principles to inform and help prioritise the backlog of common tools.

Currently, there is a gap between those who could use common tools and services, and those who provide them.

The principles are grouped into 3 sections: easy to use and user friendly, operational, and compliant.

Additionally, technical capabilities must prioritise 4 things before they’re added as technical guidance to the service standard:

  • providing a clear onboarding process for integration of technical capability into a product or service
  • offering good documentation, including support information for developers and users
  • transparent and robust assurance process
  • supporting national standards

Putting in the guide rails

While the NHS login and PDS tools are in use and well known, some services you'd expect to use them are still not adopting them. The result has been multiple data silos and mixed user experiences which impact on both user satisfaction and the delivery of care.

Currently, there is a gap between those who could use common tools and services, and those who provide them. By improving information, incentives and support for both users and service providers and we intend to bridge this gap.

We want to do this by putting ‘guide rails’ - clear instructions of things to consider when creating products - in a new technology section of the NHS service standard, to help those building products and services reuse existing tools that meet their needs.

We hope the inclusion of technical guidance and policy in the NHS service standard will signpost users to existing tools that may meet their needs, reducing waste and improving quality of care.


Where next?

We recognise that these guide rails are not a silver bullet solution to address the pain points that suppliers and users face when accessing national products and services. Challenges around onboarding, integration, roadmaps and data quality have all been raised. Over the next 6 months these will be areas that our Core Services team within Platforms will actively tackle, as part of our Spine Futures and API Management programmes of work, and we look forward to updating you on our progress in future blog posts.


Get involved

We want to ensure the content we’ve developed is useful, easy to use and find. The NHS login and PDS content are now live on the service standard in the new technology section. We would welcome your feedback on the content and ideas for future tools and technology to include. If you have some thoughts please get in touch

Interested in working at NHS Digital? Search our latest job opportunities.


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Last edited: 7 April 2022 9:08 am