Analytics is tending to some of the NHS’s wounds

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett July 16, 2017
Hospitals around the UK are using data and artificial intelligence to improve the patient experience and relieve pressures on the NHS.

It is well-documented that the NHS is struggling on all fronts: pay freezes are leading to staff shortages; patient targets are often being missed; an increasing UK population means more burden on existing services; and the backdrop to all this is an ongoing pressure to find efficiency savings.

While the idea of technology being the answer to these problems might set alarm bells ringing – see the failed NHS National Programme for IT – if approached on a smaller, more specific scale, investment in technology has huge potential for healthcare. Whether finding patterns in cancer diagnoses, helping to speed up drug discovery trials, or ensuring that medical excellence and intelligence is shared quickly and easily across the globe, data analytics could be responsible for a healthcare revolution.

One hospital pioneering the way in this space is Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

Alder Hey has teamed up with IBM to make use of its Watson artificial intelligence (AI) system, with the intention to become the first cognitive hospital in the UK. The hospital is currently collecting anonymised patient information to feed to Watson, which then analyses the data. The aim is to gain a better understanding of how patients and their parents are feeling, make a child’s hospital stay less daunting by offering a more personalised service, and hopefully get patients better and home quicker.

Iain Hennessey, clinical director of Innovation and Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon at Alder Hey, explains:

Patients and their families have been approached to respond to a range of questions, from preferences regarding parking, to what they would like to eat, to their favourite games and films and what they want their bedroom to look like. They are also being asked what questions they have about clinical procedures, general anaesthetic and surgery.

Our aim is to greatly improve patient experience by getting better at identifying patients’ anxieties and being able to provide information and reassurance on-demand. We also hope it will help improve the way we can communicate with our patients and parents about appointments and aftercare.

According to Hennessey, this is the first time Watson technology has been applied to improve patient experience in the UK. He sees many more potential uses for the AI system, from driving vital research projects by proactively matching suitable patients to clinical studies; monitoring admission patterns to help with bed planning; and to help management of chronic illnesses through educational applications, which could alert patients and their doctors when their symptoms reach the point at which they should seek medical help. He adds:

We believe that utilising data in this way will help the UK health sector to enhance patient care and potentially generate significant savings for both the hospital and the NHS as a whole.

Live health intelligence

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Foundation Trust has also turned to data analytics to improve its patient services and address some of the challenges it is facing. Mark Singleton, head of business intelligence at the trust, says that - as is the case with many other trusts across the UK - one of its biggest challenges is the huge pressure to decrease A&E waiting times in the face of growing demand, and restraints on funding, staff and resources.

WWL has been working with analytics specialist Qlik to create a number of applications that provide live intelligence to staff, and ultimately benefit patients. One of these is an app that monitors the time between a patient GP referral and when that patient is seen and treated, helping the trust to keep within the national target.

The app has also helped WWL to reduce A&E waiting times by 30 minutes on average. Front-line staff and clinicians have information at their fingertips regarding where patients are in their care throughout the hospital, improving discharge levels, reducing delays and minimising re-admissions.

A large touchscreen has been installed in the emergency room, visible to staff and patients. The dashboard displays the number of patients due through the door and those likely to need a bed. It also shows patient acuity and their historic admissions information to give a greater understanding of their likely recovery time, helping to prevent capacity issues. Singleton adds:

With this insight, we can plan for both long-term and short-term staffing as well as presenting a current view of the department and the areas surrounding it that affect patient flow. The insights gleaned through the platform also help us to improve treatment and patient care. We are able to look at past infection and readmission trends, and analyse that data to ensure that our services are better in the future.

We would say that one of the biggest successes of this work is how it has helped change our culture. Data is no longer seen as just a way to monitor what’s happened yesterday but is now appreciated and seen as a key commodity in helping with pressures faced both today and the future.

Benchmarking patient experience

NHS Improvement, the organisation responsible for overseeing NHS trusts, is using data analysis to help different hospitals track how they are performing and benchmark themselves against others. Its Patient Experience Headlines Tool, based on technology from Tableau, gathers data from 30 different sources to give trusts an overview of how they are performing when it comes to patient experience. Iain Wallen, director of Informatics and Analytics at NHS Improvement, notes:

Being able to measure patient satisfaction from the patients themselves and see how their local peers are performing helps trusts and hospitals make adjustments to the way they work and set more attainable goals.

The dashboards track everything from the number of patients breaching the four-hour A&E target, to the number of urgent operations cancelled and the number of patients treated in A&E that did not require hospital treatment. Wallen adds:

With a variety of visual dashboards, analysts at NHS Improvement can identify issues quickly by seeing patterns and spotting outliers in very large data sets, which means they can start working with trusts to resolve problems faster.

These examples are a great first step in how data can improve the patient experience; the next stage should be incorporating relevant external data into analytics systems.

Kannan Jayaraman, associate vice president, Insights & Data at Capgemini UK, believes it is vital the NHS starts to understand and use publicly available macro data to its advantage.

Analysing things like weather patterns and seasonal changes can help anticipate potential spikes and understand when an increase in care will be most needed.

Investing in the tools needed to take advantage of this data, such as machine learning, will help the NHS identify potential patterns, which can lead to an increase in preventative care. This, in turn, helps reduce the strain on the system in the long term, by reducing the need for repeat visits or trips to A&E and ultimately saving on cost.

An open approach to data is also important to help the UK healthcare system get the most value out of its resources.

Data is one of the most valuable resources the NHS has, because it gives vital insight into a patient’s overall condition and requirements. When departments share their data and review it in a joined-up way, they can develop proactive care practices and react quicker to situations that have developed between visits.