The NHS states that open-source is a core strategy for creating better technology, which directly leads to better outcomes in the NHS and social care and I couldn’t agree more. In this post, I share why I believe open-source is the way to go when it comes to health tech innovation, how we are doing it at Mindwave, and what Covid-19 might mean for open source in digital health.
But first of all, let me take you back to 2014, the year I set up mHabitat – an NHS hosted digital health consultancy. With a non-technology background, I combined a deep knowledge of healthcare with quickly accrued expertise in how to collaborate with the tech sector.
A part-time PhD student, I kept a weekly blog with a creative commons licence and was intuitively drawn to the technology equivalent in open-source. In those early days, mHabitat worked with industry partners to develop five open-source digital health products. None of them was ever implemented. We learnt the hard way that our value was working with human factors and not with code.
It turns out that I wasn’t alone on that journey. With a background in the gaming industry, and a non-executive director at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) Kumar Jacob was also building a business in digital health. Unlike me, Kumar understood the challenges of building a software business and was sceptical about an NHS Trust developing, maintaining and commercialising the software. Not only was it too far removed from the core business, Kumar similarly believed that technology built using NHS money should be open-source, reusable and shareable.
Whilst mHabitat stayed within the NHS and moved away from building software, Kumar created Mindwave as a spinout from SLaM and moved towards service design and then full-stack open-source development.
Mindwave’s core product is a personal health record (PHR) that has its origin in SLaM. Originally built using proprietary code and sitting on top of Microsoft HealthVault, Kumar and his team reconceptualised and rebuilt it – ground up, design-led and using open-source technologies.
Whilst it is often the case that open-source code attracts a like-minded community of developers, in this case, Mindwave built a like-minded community of NHS Trusts – each with their own separate roadmaps but sharing new features and functions. This is not an inconsequential thing to pull off – a tech partner galvanising and supporting a group of NHS provider organisations to share resources and collaborate together.
The Covid-19 pandemic is seeing an acceleration of digital health. For example, the BBC reports that whilst only 1% of GP consultations were held via video last year, currently 100% are triaged by phone or video communications and only 7% or 8% are in person. It is hard to see how things can go back to how they were before. The open source community is responding to Covid-19 by sharing open source code, design patterns and hardware licensing. And there are open source grants and funding opportunities emerging to bolster the open source community’s response.
Open collaboration wins over proprietary closed innovation because there are more minds and more eyes working on problems together. At Mindwave we hope our open source products can help the NHS respond to Covid-19 with no licensing costs and our understanding of solving user needs through user research and design thinking.
With a background of 20+ years in the public sector, it was important to me that I joined a company with a business model that adds to rather than extracts from the NHS. Kumar and the Mindwave team certainly demonstrated that, having built a successful business aligned to NHS values using open data, open standards and open-source software.
Our clients don’t stay with us because they are locked into our proprietary software. We stand or fall on the value of our relationships and the quality of our delivery. As chief innovation officer for Mindwave, my job is to help grow our impact and help the NHS, academia and charities do what they do even better, enabled by technology. I believe we are a better and more successful company for being open.
You can find out more about Mindwave here and what we are doing to help our clients during COVID-19 here.
Kumar and I will lead Open UK’s TeaBreakTuesday on11 May at 11am when we will be discussing Mindwave’s approach to open-source.
Dr. Victoria Betton, Chief Innovation Officer at Mindwave