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Digital era NHS

It’s easy to imagine a future healthcare system with wide eyes and a vivid imagination; robot doctors performing surgery with near-perfect accuracy, electrical antibodies sent through the body to combat diseases and devices that could determine and assess injuries and illness with a quick scan of the patient, writes Zak Suleman, Healthcare Security Specialist at the web filtering and analysis product company Smoothwall.

It’s not inconceivable this will happen in the next decade or few, but there is a far greater issue at stake right in front of our noses which we ought not to ignore: how to best keep, manage and protect hospitals’ data. Granted, it might not be as glamorous as robot surgeons, but with the better use of data, we could certainly help save the NHS and prepare it for the increasingly digital future. Our national health system treats a million people every 36 hours, so having the most efficient service possible is paramount. However, the challenge has always been that for the past 25-30 years, the data transformation from paper to a more standardised digital format has occurred without any real structure behind it – logistically, this is an incredibly hard job to do.

Ultimately, the power of data would result in a much leaner, meaner NHS. Let’s explore how data could save the NHS.

Siloed data

A lot of CSUs (Commissioning Support Units) already have the analytical capability to feed into CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) but ultimately it does beg the question: why isn’t more data being analysed even though the systems are in place to do so? The answer is simply because the data is being held in so many different silos and there is no common structure and format. A lot of the NHS system data cannot be married together – because so many practitioners are working off so many different formats, this ultimately affects the quality and standard of data and how easy it is to derive meaningful insight from it all.
For example, it’s quite often the case that a doctor in A&E will need to share an image of a fractured wrist with a GP in a surgery or a physiotherapist elsewhere. All of these practitioners will use separate technology with different ways of recording this data, but it’s vitally important that they all communicate with each other securely and coherently without any misinterpretation of diagnosis or data. Failure to do so could, in a worst case scenario, prove fatal.
Organisations like Deepmind Health is a good example of how benefits can be realised by analysing data; Deepmind Health supports clinicians by building and scaling technologies using the latest in data analytics to provide the best possible care for its patients.

Remotely good healthcare

As we head towards the summer, it’s easy to forget the huge strain our healthcare system was under in the cold, winter months. During this time, hospitals know there is a greater demand on services as a combination of factors from an ageing population to a cold snap means there is guaranteed to be a massive influx of patients. Crucially, hospitals must be prepared and use data analytics so hospitals are able to resource accordingly. Quite often, when there is a clear absence of beds-to-patient ratio, this is in no small part down a lack of analytical data planning.

One of the most important ways in which data could be used for the NHS is in telehealth – remote healthcare which collects and uses data. Although being piloted at the moment, this idea could completely transform the delivery of healthcare, provided that the data structure is correct and common. It could offer solutions as to why diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure, for example, affects various ethnic groups differently and could alter the medicine based on the data the telehealth device provides – all with ruthless efficiency.

Progress in the cloud

Another way the NHS could increase efficiency manifold is by investing in cloud-based services, potentially saving millions by reducing the cost of running on-premise IT estates. One such example is the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust who built a private cloud with the help of Hitachi Data Systems to cope with increasing patient data. St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust has similarly taken advantage of the data available to it. Using a service called Tableau, a product that allows companies to easily access and derive insights from data, the hospital said it has delivered outstanding patient care and met the challenges of cost reduction, source allocation and compliance regulations. Certainly, more NHS hospitals could channel this approach. Only by embracing the power of data and structuring it in a way that is easily accessible, manageable and usable can the NHS truly survive in today’s digital era. The NHS will continue to have problems and new technologies will be developed to help to cure illness and drive innovation. But fundamentally, the buck stops at the transformation of data and how best to implement it in a healthcare scenario. While data won’t answer all the questions our healthcare system faces, it will certainly go a long way to erasing many of the question marks.


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