Phil Groom, commercial director of Bond Digital Health, discusses the potentials of big data in the NHS.
The UK Government has set out to make England’s National Health Service the “most cutting-edge system in the world” by supporting innovative digital technology-based solutions to help solve its most difficult problems.
For a system that in part still relies on paper notes, fax machines and out-of-date operating systems that might seem at first to be a lofty aim.
But with money set aside to help NHS Trusts foster innovation and deals signed with leading digital health firms to deliver change, the Department for Health appears to be serious in its intentions.
The UK is one of the countries leading the way in the world when it comes to digital innovation, and its health service should be an integral part of that.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity and risk for the NHS in this brave new digital world is how it deals with ‘big data’ and data-driven technology.
Data in any health service is a vital and valuable asset, and for the NHS, data-driven insight has huge potential. At a system level it could help save money, identify new sources of revenue and improve management efficiency and planning, while for patients it could transform personalised medicine, improve proactive care and ensure more effective health interventions.
The NHS already has vast troves of unique data sets on patients, health conditions and diseases, which has grown hugely in recent years thanks to the gradual introduction of new data collection and storage technology and processes.
Big data is a big deal; according to this report the global big data in healthcare market was estimated to be worth $14.25 billion (£10.85 bn) in 2017, and is expected to grow over $68.75 billion (£52.37 bn) by 2025.
The UK Government understands the value, having put ‘big data’ analytics of healthcare at the centre of its life sciences industrial strategy. It is no surprise then that the NHS is starting to work with private technology companies to capitalise on this. As a result, it recently published a new code of conduct for the use of digital technology in health and care.
The code of conduct contains 10 principles that set out what the NHS expects from suppliers and users of data-driven technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI).
It says the aim is to make it easier for suppliers to understand what the NHS needs from them, and to help health and care providers choose safe, effective, secure technology to improve the services they provide.
The 10 principles set out in the code aim to foster innovation and tech company engagement with the NHS, while also ensuring patient data is kept secure and protected from abuse.
It says: “If we do not think about issues such as transparency, accountability, liability, explicability, fairness, justice and bias, it is also possible that the increasing use of data-driven technologies, including AI, within the health and care system could cause unintended harm.”
As a company that provides data-driven technology to healthcare providers and practitioners, including app and cloud solutions, we think this is a welcome and timely intervention.
A code of conduct is necessary to ensure the use of data-driven technology in the health system meets the needs of patients and practitioners while being safe and ethical.
Knowing the sector as we do this is likely to gain widespread support as long as it is applied appropriately and not used to stifle innovation.
We strongly believe in the maxim that “data is the new oil, but it is only worth something if it is refined.”
Recent advances in science and technology mean vast amounts of patient data are being generated on a daily basis, and only artificial intelligence and machine learning have the capacity to really cope with it and make sense of it.
Private companies are already collecting patient data (through connected medical devices for example) and using it commercially and profiting hugely from doing so. If the NHS can utilise the latest AI and machine learning technologies to collect and analyse patient and other health service data and use it to benefit the NHS without compromising patients then that has to be seen as a good thing.
Of course there have to be safeguards; the data has to be anonymised, the system has to be secure and patients have to have confidence that their data will not be misused. But if the NHS can successfully overcome these concerns then it stands to gain real long term benefits from a truly transformative technology.