A tool that allows anyone to drill down into prescribing statistics has been described as the ‘foundation of a change in the spirit’ of how NHS data is handled.

OpenPrescribing collates raw files from NHS England about drugs prescribed by GPs and allows users to compare the figures by CCG and GP practice.

Users of the free online service, built by Dr Ben Goldacre and Anna Powell-Smith at the EBM Data Lab, can measure prescribing over time and view information on a heat map.

Senior clinical research fellow at the University of Oxford, Dr Goldacre, said it was a departure from the NHS’ “spectacular big ticket failures” in data sharing.

“So far most of the data sharing activity that has happened in this country has gone disastrously wrong and been a horrific waste of money,” he said.

“I think part of the problem is that they have often been driven by people trying to build these huge national infrastructure projects without actually talking enough to everyday clinicians, pharmacists, patients and practice managers about what they want from data.”

He set out to produce a tool to give health data information “to individual practitioners, to individual patients, to doctors, to prescribing advisors, to pharmacist, to commissioners, to everybody” to improve patient care and save money.

The key, he says, is to make a small prototype people can use and play with and then discuss with users if it is what they wanted.

“I think that is the really key lesson, I think the process that we have taken is the foundation of a change in spirit of the way we deal with data in the NHS, honestly.

“And I know that maybe sounds a bit dewy-eyed or even a bit pompous but I think it’s true.

“I think the way we have dealt with data in the UK so far in healthcare has been very arrogant, it’s been very top-down and it hasn’t worked and I think what we need is small outfits making small, useful projects, working with local teams to find out what they want and helping them to get it,” he said.

While OpenPrescribing has a clear use for medicines optimisation teams, public health consultants and prescribers, there is also scope for pharmacists to use the information to generate discussions about prescribing in their locality.

“I think just out of sheer nosiness I would be doing that,” Dr Goldacre said.

“Also I think if you are a local pharmacist and you start thinking, well, that’s a bit odd if one practice does seem to be prescribing an awful lot of one specific drug, then you can have a look at the data and you can test that hunch.”

OpenPrescribing was funded by the West of England Academic Health Science Network for £50,000.

Try it for yourself - click here