Sharing of public sector data between Government agencies and commercial organisations can have many social and economic benefits. It can help to improve services, facilitate research and innovation and help tackle real-world problems. Aggregating data from different sources may lead to the discovery of new insights that were not possible to observe previously. For example, a pilot project involving linking and sharing of patient data between hospitals and GPs in Somerset helped to reduce hospital admissions by 30% through earlier identification of at-risk patients. Data sharing public sector bodies and external organisations has been an important aspect of the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: it has been key to understanding the spread of the virus and managing healthcare resources.

There are a number of challenges that may inhibit wider data sharing and prevent organisations from benefitting from it fully. These include technical barriers (such as limited adoption of available data standards), confusion about the legal mechanisms governing data sharing, cultural and organisational factors, and issues with interoperability and legacy IT systems. Another key issue is public trust, and the need for transparency around how individuals’ data are used and shared. This issue has received significant press attention in the last two months, after NHS Digital confirmed plans to collate the medical data of patients in England into a single database and make it available to academic and commercial third party organisations for research and planning purposes. Some stakeholders, including the British Medical Association, have expressed concerns that patients had not been given enough information about the scheme, how it may affect them and their option to opt-out. As a result, NHS Digital has postponed the project, known as the General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) programme, to September 2021.

This POSTnote will give an overview of how public sector data is currently shared between Government agencies and with private sector organisations and would summarise the main benefits and challenges. It will provide an overview of the steps being taken to improve data sharing, including the use of new technologies and sharing models such as data trusts.

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