Public sector data has had a rough ride of late. So far this year we have seen the NHS Care.Data programme delayed, plus a recent outburst that HMRC will begin to share data about the nation’s tax payers. When you consider how much data we each share via social networks, retail loyalty cards or the insights that utility- and telecoms companies can glean from our use of their services, you find there is a major mistrust and misunderstanding of how public sector information is shared.

Perhaps the confusion stems from the lack of commitment and communication over the role of the public sector in 2014 Great Britain. But the public sector is a set of institutions under pressure to deliver John Lewis services on a Lidl budget; increased use of data will enable it to become more efficient, more effective and do what a public service should do: add to the sum of our nation.

The Clinical Research Network (CRN) is clear about its mandate; it sees NHS data as a way to improve both the health of the UK and the nation’s wealth. Given the rising rate of obesity and massive national debt incurred from bailing out the banks, the mandate of the CRN is grand and necessary.

It is fitting that the CIO for this honest and both publically spirited and business-minded attitude toward information is youthful and trendy. CRN CIO Richard Corbridge has the breezy enthusiasm and deep thinking of the recent portrayals of BBC Sci-Fi hero Doctor Who, a character he perhaps understands, given the small TARDIS that sits on a shelf in his Leeds office.

A conversation with Corbridge is one that straddles the great traditions of service we expect from our public sector, and the reality of a rapidly changing world where technology and pace are the zeitgeist of our era.

The CRN is part of the Whitehall Department of Health’s National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and is operated via a contract, at present, by the University of Leeds.

The CRN provides information systems and business intelligence to 10,000 research-related NHS staff, who were responsible for the recruitment of over 630,000 participants into clinical studies and trials in the past year.

“Our job is to face into the NHS and facilitate the delivery of clinical research,” Corbridge explains of his organisation. “We have three customers: academic research, charities that want to fund research across the NHS, and commercial pharmaceutical organisations, again looking to carry out research.

“As part of the National Institute for Health Research, we help to provide the infrastructure that allows high-quality clinical research to take place in the NHS, so that patients can benefit from new and better treatments, and we can learn how to improve NHS healthcare for the future.

“There isn’t an NHS anywhere else in the world, it is the most integrated healthcare system in the world,” Corbridge says with enthusiasm.

“We don’t have patient-identifiable data; we are about where within the NHS organisations can best do their research, delivering quality outcomes to targets agreed and set.

“A number of years ago the UK had taken a downturn in the amount of clinical research being carried out because it was taking too long, but since the CRN formed we have turned that around,” Corbridge explains.

“We are helping researchers to set up clinical studies quickly and effectively; supporting the life-sciences industry to deliver research programmes; providing health professionals with research training; and working with patients to ensure their needs are at the centre of all research activity,” he says.
“Let’s say Pfizer wants to do some research into a drug for eyesight issues. It needs to get permission to do that research and it needs to know where in the NHS there are clinicians doing similar research, and have the capacity to do some additional research,” he says.

The role of the CRN is to act as the nation’s central information resource that connects the various data sets of clinical research carried out within the NHS to the organisations that can use that data or existing research programmes. It ensures that research continues to be funded in the UK, which increases the chance that any pharmaceutical products that result from this research will be delivered in the UK.

Public perceptions

Given that the role of the CRN is to encourage greater use of UK NHS data, and the mania surrounding public sector data, the interview naturally turns to subject of public perceptions of data use.

“There is a sort of craziness to the data issue at present. It is a very thin and difficult line to get right,” Corbridge admits. But he is concerned that the NHS stands to lose if the debate is not grounded in facts, rather than hype.

“The big pharma companies are still making major discoveries – just look at the sequencing of the human genome, this will make medicine more individualised.

“Data and IT is how we can make those benefits happen in the NHS,” Corbridge explains of the direct link between scientific breakthroughs such as the sequencing of the human genome and the use of data created in our NHS and how the benefits can be extracted from a scientific discovery only if we understand its impact on society.

Connecting data

Connecting data is the key outcome Corbridge and his team have achieved to ensure the UK benefits from its data and medical research.

Corbridge is young for a CIO, just under 40 at the time of the interview, and perhaps this has something to do with his approach. Rather than build a massive single platform over many years, the CIO has focused on re-using the already significant technology investments made by the NHS and health-research community and invested time and effort into connecting the existing technology to create an environment in which there is a greater ability to discover and use existing information.

The Open Data Platform (ODP) connects and joins several NHS databases developed and used by the NHS for clinical research.

“You can see in real time data about your trial, numbers of recruits into that trial, and how long the trial has been running. We are enabling all the data collected to become information for insight.

“By being transparent with access it stops the discussion of whose data is correct, and we provide the tools to manipulate the data, so it acts as a metal detector in the hay stack of medical research data,” he says.

“It is not one big system, but some standard ways of working,” he says. The central tool is the Qlikview-based business intelligence (BI) platform.

“We offer to the industry a connection to our systems – for free – that connects your research portfolio to the reference data, so as a pharma you can see where in the NHS is the right place to place your research.

“There are a lot of communications companies that want to create a form of LinkedIn for the clinical research world; well, we have cracked that. We have also taken a lead on informing the patient community that it is okay to ask to take part in a clinical trial.

“Each of the research areas has their own data scientist or information manager with their own methods, and the Qlikview/ODP is a virtual BI tool stretching across all the data sets that opens up the data. For example, an analysis of trial recruitment used to take two days; now we can do it 45 minutes. It means we have changed the role of the data scientists from number-crunchers into analysts. The beauty of Qlikview/ODP is that you can throw a lot of sources at it. It is easy to use and is point-and-click for a researcher to look at research and compare it with what is happening at another trial, for example.”

“Making data connect to people is great. In 12 months we have gone from zero- to 10,000 potential users; we thought it would be a few hundred,” he says.

New technologies

The CRN hasn’t been afraid to challenge the technology status quo of its community. Recently the CRN has been driving the adoption of a new local portfolio management system, again with the purpose of opening up data.

Corbridge explains that his team set a standard and went to the market with defined ways of connecting reference data and the level of service expected. The research networks were then informed of the new standards for portfolio management that would be required.

“It has revived the marketplace and we re-used ideas from Connecting for Health and the GP system of Choice,” he says.

The CRN itself is a major user of Oracle and Google alongside Qlikview.

“We have moved everyone within the CRN off SharePoint and on to Google, and done so in about two months using PA Consulting for the implementation. The opportunities with Google Apps are massive,” Corbridge explains, but it is not without its challenges.

“You can imagine, moving an organisation with an academic research culture organisation from Outlook to Gmail, where there are no storage folders, was at first challenging. But the collaboration piece with Google is a change to the way of thinking. So it is about ‘Do I really need to work on this on my own, or do we try and knock this together as a group?’

“What is surprising me is that it has not been the big learning curve we expected. It is increasing the speed of reaction for the organisation and people don’t need to travel,” he says. Corbridge assessed Microsoft Office 365, but felt the Google ethos of collaboration was closer to the way his organisation operated.

Corbridge is the first CIO at the CRN and, since joining in 2011, he has focused on making the information systems the CIO drives a central part of what the organisation delivers.

“The data we have could be of real value to the NHS and our remit is to open up our data,” he says. Corbridge is on the board of the CRN and reports directly to the CEO. Corbridge regularly writes a blog for CIO and the Guardian, and speaks at a wide variety of data-, public-sector- and healthcare conferences.

“The CEO wanted the executive team to be outward-facing. So my job is to link up with the CIO for the charities and life science industry. The life-science business has got a buzz about data and IT, so I’m pushing against a half-open door.”

“Writing the blog makes you stop and think about different topics; what is amazing is the interest you get globally.

“I have a team of 53 and many of them have come into the NHS from sectors such as banking,” he says.

Apart from a brief stint with Perot Systems, Corbridge has been leading healthcare tech for much of his career.

“I applied for a role at the NHS Information Authority and just loved it, and I love making a difference.

“Leeds University runs a health informatics degree and there are still a lot of students coming through that wanting a healthcare IT degree,” he says of the healthy interest in a sector still in need of major change due to the opportunities technology offers.

Away from the CRN and its home in a glorious Victorian building on a hill above Leeds, Corbridge keeps his enthusiasm topped up with a deep passion for music, travel and, of course, Doctor Who.