Health: How the backbone of the NHS is a product of Leeds

Rob Shaw (left), from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, with Glynn Robinson, managing director at BJSS. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Rob Shaw (left), from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, with Glynn Robinson, managing director at BJSS. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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Yorkshire is England’s best and biggest county, according to most who live in it.

It’s a centre of sporting excellence, the crowned prince of British cycling and a hub for history, education and finance – but few are aware that it is the technological heart of the NHS.

Believe it or not, over the last two years an overhaul of the NHS’s IT backbone has been masterminded in Leeds.

The aptly-named NHS Spine computer system has been relied upon by medical professionals, care organisations and patients in England since its 2003 inception when it was launched by communications giant BT.

But Government cost-cutting led its arms length organisation the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which has its main bases and 1,700 staff in Leeds, to attempt to build a new system in-house.

Eventually enlisting the support of Leeds firm BJSS – a company experienced in building complex IT systems in the financial sector – it began a two-year project to overhaul IT that the whole country depends on back in 2013.

The move was a risky break in the NHS tradition of big money corporate contracts with firms like BT and achieved “dramatic”, as yet unspecified, savings for the NHS.

Rob Shaw, executive director of operations and assurance services at HSCIC who led the project, said: “Government traditionally don’t do this kind of development. It’s probably one of the biggest IT projects ever delivered in health care.”

Spine handles a staggering 6billion messages annually, has more than 1million registered users and hosts information such as 70million medical records, electronic prescription software, supports the NHS 111 service, out of hours care and only allows certain users to access different levels of secure information depending on their NHS role.

HSCIC’s revamp of the system was almost entirely delivered from Yorkshire through its Leeds delivery partner BJSS and a series of small specialist IT firms, while its huge infrastructure data is stored at a centre in Harrogate. Following a series of test runs, the new Spine went live over 48hours in August last year.

Mr Shaw explained: “Spine is literally the backbone, the IT infrastructure that underpins the NHS. The NHS works 24/7 so over the last year our service, since we’ve delivered it, has been available 99.97 per cent of the time.”

And it is a system that will continue to evolve from Leeds thanks to its numerous contributors and the flexible ‘agile’ approach to its design.

“We can get software out there far faster than we used to able to. The key thing is it’s really adaptable,” Mr Shaw added. “We will be able to evolve the service to meet the increased demand of health and social care.”

LEEDS IS A CENTRE FOR IT INNOVATION

The opportunity to remodel such a vital aspect of the NHS ended up giving a Leeds firm in BJSS the chance to develop a ground-breaking system.

The ever-evolving result is a fresh IT Spine and an added pat on the back for companies in the digital sector in Leeds.

Glynn Robinson, who is the managing director at BJSS, said: “Leeds is a hotbed for talent in digital.

“Having the HSCIC in Leeds has created a hub of smaller companies that have ended up specialising in the health sector.”

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