THE BLOG

Data-Driven Healthcare in the UK

11/26/2014 01:19 pm 13:19:22 | Updated 25 January 2015

This month marked an important step in the move to making data-driven healthcare a reality here in the UK, with the government unveiling new series of plans that promise to make accessing the NHS as simple as online banking.

It is all part of an effort to digitalize the NHS, transforming it into a service where patients view their medical records online and use new apps to improve their health - to remind when medication is due, track blood pressure or spot signs of stress.

The pioneers leading this transformation have no medical backgrounds to speak of, nor are they to be found in big pharmaceutical companies. The 21st Century equivalents of Pasteur and Fleming are the techies of Silicon Valley and Silicon Fen.

New developments in the fields of data storage and analytics have laid the foundations for modern medicine to make a huge leap forward. As the quantity of data we generate rapidly expands and we continue to develop the computational power to store it, health authorities will be able to gather more information about their patients in a single year than has been open to them in all history.

And while today we rely on the well-trained individuals, there's good reason to believe that tomorrow's medicine will be in debt to data scientists, individuals with no medical expertise to speak of.

Thanks to advancements in data analytics, almost everything that can have an impact on our health - from our DNA to our peculiar social habits - is becoming knowable. Today's technology firms are arming the medical profession with a wealth of information that can be used to identify new patterns of disease, better assess the efficacy of new treatments and draw granular links between symptom and cause.

I've long argued that with the data records of the National Health Service (NHS), the UK has the potential to be the real leader for data-driven healthcare. Dating back to the 1940s, the NHS possesses a library of information that, if centrally stored, could provide doctors with an unparalleled insight into patient wellbeing.

Having access to whole-population data, for example, would allow drug side effects to be picked up where they would previously go unreported, and used effectively it could revolutionize treatments and help the UK take a lead in the bioscience industry.

My company, WANdisco, is helping hospitals use Big Data to digitally collate, store and analyze all information relating to its patients' conditions in real time. Electronic signals sent out by equipment such as heart monitors, ventilators or wearable devices can now be monitored, regardless of whether the patient is still in hospital. This means that staff are alerted if a patient's vital signs cross a key threshold, easing the burden on doctors and nurses and providing a credible alternative to round-the-clock care.

Despite the benefits Big Data can bring, the British public can be skeptical about the ability of technology to bring about real change, certainly compared to the US where the health-tech sector is booming. Unlike the US, Britain has a tendency to fall foul of Luddism, fuelled by a belief that new technology can mark the first step on the road to an Orwellian nightmare.

Whereas the US has largely managed to separate the revelations over spying and surveillance from discussions around Big Data in healthcare, many in the UK view them as part of the same trend. Earlier this year, as a result of widespread public pressure, the NHS was forced to suspend its plans for Care.data, a central stash of patient records that researchers said could transform UK healthcare.

The main obstacle seems to be attitudinal in nature, with many struggling to reconcile the trade-off between individual privacy and the collective benefits of medical research.

With the country gripped by the ongoing fallout from the Snowden affair, homes up and down the country were flooded with leaflets that focused on how the government was going to access confidential records. Only in the small print was it made apparent that patients had a right to withhold their records.

Care.data has since been reinstated, but little has been done to mitigate the fears of those who remain to be convinced that the end justifies the means. A much more effective approach would have been to listen to the public fears and explain the life-enhancing implications of data-driven healthcare. How many millions could be saved by new treatments? How many lives currently cut short could be extended? And how many terminal diseases could be eradicated?

The more data that can be analyzed, the better the medical insights and the more lives that can be saved. In that context, it is everyone's interests for technology to be embraced by the worldwide healthcare community - and that means here in the UK.