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The Festival of Genomics and Biodata: An interview with Claire Bloomfield, NHS Transformation Directorate

At the Festival of Genomics and Biodata, we are lucky enough to be joined by some of the biggest names in the business. In January, we sat down with a few of our esteemed speakers to chat about their backgrounds, roles and the work of their organisations. In this interview, we speak with Claire Bloomfield (Senior Responsible Officer, Data for R&D, Centre for Improving Data Collaboration, NHS Transformation Directorate) about transparency around data sharing, AI in healthcare and the UK’s place in the genomics world.

Please note the transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Interview originally conducted by Miyako Rogers.

FLG: Thank you for speaking at the Festival! To start off, could you tell us a little about yourself and your role?

I’m delighted to speak to you! I’m Claire Bloomfield, the Senior Responsible Officer for the Data for Research & Development programme in NHS England’s Transformation Directorate. It’s an exciting programme that supports the full breadth and potential of research and innovative uses of the healthcare data that is generated when people visit a GP surgery, when they go to hospital – from the day they’re born, all the way through their lives.

Health research is something I’m passionate about. I was an academic researcher in neuroscience, many moons ago, and I was always focused on the potential of research to impact patient care. I loved research but found it even more rewarding to help others achieve their research ambitions than achieving my own. So, I shifted from being an academic researcher into research infrastructure and management in cancer strategy for the University of Oxford. More recently, I was CEO of the National Consortium of Intelligent Medical Imaging, so I have worked in health data and health data infrastructure projects. I’m not sure that infrastructure was my core passion, but it certainly has the potential to unlock an awful lot of diverse research. And I think that’s really inspiring.

FLG: Could you discuss your role in the Centre for Improving Data Collaboration?

I’m based within the Centre for Improving Data Collaboration, which, almost as the name says on the tin, is there to help the NHS form better, more effective data partnerships for research and innovation. And that takes the form of supporting commercial principles, guidance and practical support for people entering data partnerships with researchers and innovators. There is also a programme that I lead, the Data for R&D programme, investing in Secure Data Environments and data-enabled clinical trials to make it more efficient and effective to support a wide variety of research in cancer, cardiovascular disease and mental health.

FLG: You touched on your background in neuroscience and research – how does it relate to genomics, data and AI, and how does that help your role today?

My role in research has been instrumental in terms of my empathy for the challenges that face researchers and innovators in trying to develop new insights and innovations, and the complexity of trying to get research done in an often-challenging environment. That empathy and experience of having been a researcher myself is very helpful, because I understand where people are coming from.

My specific background in neuroscience, though… I don’t think I can argue that it directly applies to the work I’m doing, so much as it is just a passion project; the brain is really interesting and exciting to me. I will say, though, that there’s a commonality between the way neurons connect and the way people connect. And it’s just different scales of how we connect people and connect data. We’re all a large neuronal network in my mind.

FLG: And could you tell us about data sharing, data access, partnerships and promoting transparency and trust?

It’s important that we have public and patient trust in how we use their medical records to support research and innovation. We’re  focused on how we can do that through shifting from data sharing to data access as the default way by which researchers and innovators interact with, and use, medical records. Part of that’s a technology solution, which means we can bring people to the data rather than making copies of the data and sharing it. But it’s also about how we can enhance the transparency about ‘who’s had access and what did they do?’ What were the insights and improvements that happened as a consequence of it? Secure data environments both keep the data safe and secure, and also allow us to have a much more explicit conversation with the public about how we’re using data to save lives.

FLG: So how does the Centre work to facilitate the role that genomic data has in people’s lives and unlock its potential?

It’s vitally important that we use innovation to drive impact for patient care now and long into the future. I think we can all say that we saw this impact during the pandemic, the role that data has in saving people’s lives – in the development of the vaccines, in the studies around the interventions like dexamethasone – that using health data well really helps keep people safe and living well longer. And we need to do more of that from all research indications, not just COVID. Cancer, cardiovascular disease and mental health are significant burdens across the country and globally. And if we can unlock the potential of the data, regionally supporting the availability of imaging, pathology, genomics, and structured electronic patient record data… if we can combine those, that’s how I think we can drive some real leaps forward in terms of the innovation that’s possible.

FLG: At the Festival, many have talked about the UK as a genomics superpower. What work still needs to be done and what can other countries learn from the UK?

The UK is incredibly fortunate to have a rich longitudinal care record from the day people are born all the way through their lives. That means we’ve got something very special in terms of being able to track longitudinal risks and incidences of different diseases. The potential is there, but we haven’t quite unlocked it. Now, integrating that with genomics into a much more fully formed part of the NHS care delivery system would be unique globally. If we can combine them and then make that data available in Secure Data Environments, we can really shift the dial in terms of offering something that’s globally competitive and attractive in terms of life sciences.

I’m not sure I’d say that everybody can learn from the UK. I think it’s a collaborative team effort. We have as much to learn from the rest of the world, as hopefully we can contribute to progressing more research and innovation.

FLG: When we talk about ‘big data’ a lot of people are talking about AI. Could you talk about the evolving role of AI in healthcare?

I’ve been very fortunate to spend a few years of my career working in the AI and machine learning space, particularly in medical imaging, and seeing some of the possibilities of how computer science engineers can unlock some of the potential within the pixels. How can we learn more about what those images are telling us, to improve workforce efficiency and workflow to make more time for the clinicians to actually talk to you and engage with patients, rather than doing work in the back office? How can we use AI to help with that?

But, also, some really inspiring work that I think is beginning to emerge in the multimodal space is linking genomics and imaging and digital pathology together, to produce insights that just wouldn’t be possible with the human eye. So, there are two aspects; AI’s role in precision medicine, including improving the system and using computers as an ally, and AI as an ally for the clinical workforce.

FLG: What do you think people should be keeping an eye out for in the future?

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in health data research and there’s so much I could talk about. A couple of recent highlights have been the NHS DigiTrials service, which we fund, recruiting over 140,000 participants to the NHS-Galleri trial in just 10 months and sending out over 10 million invitations for citizens to participate in the Our Future Health study, as well as the investments we have been making to establish a Secure Data Environment for Research Network covering the whole of England.

Going forward, we’ll be continuing the discussions about commercial principles as we implement the model of data access, there’ll be a range of research taking place across the Secure Data Environment network, including priority areas like cardiovascular diseases and cancer. And most importantly we’ll continue our dialogue with the public to ensure we have their the trust and confidence as we take the programme forward.

FLG: And finally, how are you enjoying the Festival so far? Why did you decide to come this year and what are you most excited for?

It’s great to be at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata – it’s certainly been an exciting and inspirational couple of days. It’s been fantastic to hear some of the real progress in terms of work I’ve seen from colleagues in Genomics England and in the National Pathology Imaging Collaborative, as well as some of the new technology that’s starting to emerge. I think we’re starting to shift from the hype and the potential into real solutions, real evidence, and we’re making progress. That’s really exciting.

Networking is one of the key things that’s fantastic about having everybody back in the same room at events like this. It’s those serendipitous conversations where you can ask a colleague or collaborator or a tech partner something that you would have set up a Teams call for in the last year or so. But here you can catch up on the most immediate progress and really start to be creative in helping us pool all the expertise across the ecosystem to drive forward the improvements for patient care that we all want to see.

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