Q&A: Cloud technology and its role in the NHS

Ian Bolland spoke to Cleveland Henry, director of cloud at UKCloud about the uses of cloud technology, security and the effect cloud has on the NHS. 

Give us an insight into the kind of uptake of cloud technology within health?

The simple answer is: it’s mixed. While it’s still very much in its infancy, we are beginning to see evidence that organisations understand the benefits of cloud and are starting to take early steps towards adoption.

Indeed, there’s been quite a significant uptake over the last 12 months, and that’s going to continue from now on. In fact, I think we’ll actually see it accelerate at a greater degree over the next couple of years.

For the time being though, it’s still mixed. It’s early days for cloud adoption, but it’s getting there.

How far along is the NHS with its ‘digital transformation’ when it comes to using cloud technology?

Its digital transformation journey began a few of years ago, however it should be noted that it was only early 2018 that the NHS announced that it was safe to use the cloud. The reality is, it’s a significant journey. It’s going to take several years to reach the “utopia” of digital transformation of online patient services; of using digital to such an extent that it has a real positive impact on the delivery of health and care.

On a scale of one to 10, I’d say probably its score is at four right now. It’s still got a long way to go, but there are some really good initiatives, practices and foundations, and these absolutely include the utilisation of cloud technology. Cloud is part and parcel of the whole journey; it’s an enabler of digital transformation.

Is cloud technology as safe as it can be? Can any improvements be made?

Security is one of the clearest benefits of cloud technology, but there’s always room for improvement.

What we do at UKCloud in particular, is build our cloud environments with security at their core. This immediately ensures we adhere to national cybersecurity standards. We do everything we can to ensure the security of our cloud platforms – and of the data on those platform – is at the highest level possible.

Is cloud safer than a lot of traditional on-premise infrastructure? Absolutely. It enables us to ensure security is always running, at scale. But we can’t rest on our laurels, and neither can anyone else that delivers cloud services. We’ve got to continue raising the bar, and security must always be at the core.

It’s suggested that cloud is the bedrock for elements of digital future – can you elaborate?

As I mentioned earlier, cloud is the enabler.

We talk about huge aspirations to analyse data, to use machine learning, AI and predictive analytics to deliver more precise and personal care, more rapidly than we’ve ever done before. But we need to able to access that data; we need to be able to process, compute and store it.

You can’t do that with data sat in tiny, creaky little machines in data centres. You have to be able to exploit, compute, store and process a huge volume of data if you want to deliver that additional level of analysis. So, cloud is absolutely a bedrock of the digital future.

Genomics England is one of the best examples in this country. The pilot programme involved collecting 100,000 genomes from individuals with rare diseases and then, by using cloud technology, processing the DNA sequencing of that data to obtain the information required for better diagnosis and more personalised treatment. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

What do you think to the extent of the role it will have in the NHS?

Let’s not forget, the NHS broke new ground over 70 years ago, has continued to do so and has the potential to break new ground again and again. It was created to fix people when they’re broken. The future is about preventing people being broken in the first place. But you can only do that with data and understanding of the individual.

Again, look at Genomics England. What they do is all about looking at our DNA makeup from an individual perspective and, by being able to process and understand our health history, allowing us to define our health future. This can help find those markers that present the possibility of being affected by cancer in later years, for example. By understanding the risk factors, based on your own DNA, it’s then possible to take proactive preventative action.

This is precise personal care. It’s no longer based just on historical information and guesswork; by looking at individuals as individuals it enables professionals to personalise the healthcare needs we have now and in the future.

To me this is the future. Wellbeing becomes more important than healthcare. Get the wellbeing right and take proactive actions, and we’ll all live longer, more healthy lives.

To what extent does ‘multi-cloud’ work in an NHS environment?

It’s important to remember that we’re not starting from scratch. There isn’t one generic starting point; NHS trusts will have years’ worth of legacy solutions in place, so they can’t just lift and shift everything to one cloud platform.

They could just move those parts of their system that are 100% cloud-ready to the cloud and leave everything else where it is. But this would leave them with the same challenges around capacity, capability and security they have today.

Organisations need different platforms to help them take the step toward digital transformation; to help them through moving to the cloud, for example, through stabilising, and through increasing security, capacity and capability in their technology environment.

Essentially, multi-cloud enables the NHS to modernise existing systems while transforming new ones. It offers organisations a real opportunity to move forward with their cloud migration, enabling them to carry forward all the tools, skills, and applications they’ve already invested in as they begin to benefit from the cloud.

Consider this –  a typical NHS trust runs around 400 applications. It would be impossible to lift all 400 into a single cloud platform; it simply wouldn’t work. That’s why multi-cloud is ideal for an NHS environment.

On a personal note, how does the work you do with UKCloud differ from that at NHS Digital?

My role at NHS Digital was twofold. One of these was delivering services. I was very proud to lead a number of major programmes. Millions of people accessed NHS Choices on a daily basis, for example; it was great to see the interest in health information by the British public. And NHS Mail was a key component in allowing individuals to communicate and collaborate across health and care. I also spent time looking at innovation on both national and international levels.

Today, I’m poacher turned gamekeeper, but I spend more time interacting directly with NHS organisations than I did before, introducing solutions that I believe will replace and improve on legacy software and systems.

In addition to offering comprehensive cloud capabilities, UKCloud has a partner community with a whole host of applications and systems that can assist with helping sort business problems. This allows me to be much freer in my technology choices and views than when I was working in a centre delivering national services. I have a much wider portfolio of offerings than I did in my days inside the NHS, and my role is much more flexible in terms of my thinking and recommendations.

Despite no longer wearing an NHS badge, I’ve been able to remain very close. In fact, I think I’m actually closer to the frontline now than I’ve ever been.

What does UKCloud offer that allows it to stand out? 

As I used to tell people in my previous role, technology is actually the easy part of what we do.

A lot of organisations just deliver cloud computing services. There are cloud service providers up and down the country. What’s different about UKCloud is its expertise and experience; we’ve been enabling successful cloud migrations across the public sector for several years. And we’ve got battle scars. We know the pitfalls; we know what works and what doesn’t.

Our partner community makes us stand out too. In the healthcare sector, we have more than 40 partners whose products reside on UKCloud, but who we jointly go to market with. This allows us to offer a much wider breadth of expertise and knowledge than a lot of “classic” cloud providers can.

Also, our values are important. Yes, we’re a commercial organisation and, yes, revenue is important, but we would never enter into an agreement if we didn’t feel it was the right thing for that organisation.

In summary, digital transformation is the accepted norm. UKCloud offers an enabler that allows it to happen. We look forward to being part and parcel of the whole delivery going forward, supporting the ambitions of the health service.




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