NHSBT undergoes Azure-centric cloud transplant operation

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman August 25, 2016
The NHS service that manages donated blood, tissues and organs already relies on Microsoft Azure to host many systems and services and increasingly views it as a great place to slice and dice big medical data.

NHS Blood Transplant
At NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), the UK organization that coordinates the collection and delivery to hospitals of life-saving blood, tissue and organs, chief executive Ian Trenholm can look back on last week’s launch of the #MissingType campaign with satisfaction.

Now in its second year, this is the first time that #MissingType has gone international, with blood services from 21 countries worldwide joining with NHSBT to highlight an almost 30% fall in blood donor numbers internationally last year, compared to a decade ago.

During the campaign, individuals and corporate supporters are encouraged to drop the drop the letters A, O and B - those used by the main blood groups - from their names, logos, public signage and social media postings, in the hope that this will prompt people to register as blood donors and make regular appointments to donate.

On that front, there’s already good news from #MissingType 2016: more than 15,000 people across England registered online to become new blood donors following the campaign’s kick-off on 16 August. Some 8,000 registrations occurred in the first three days, almost double the number recorded in the entire previous week. Across social media, there were over 54,000 mentions of #MissingType globally during Week One, from brands such as Google, Cadbury, the Royal Australian Navy, Innocent Drinks, Tesco and Toronto Police. The #MissingType YouTube advert, meanwhile, had been viewed over 56,600 times at the time of writing.

The impact of all this activity on traffic to the blood.co.uk website and its associated Give Blood apps (for iOS, Android and Windows) was felt pretty much immediately, says Trenholm:

Within two or three business hours of the campaign kick-off, we had pretty much doubled the number of people trying to book appointments on our portal and we were already seeing significant numbers registering as blood donors.

Resilience in the cloud

The Microsoft Azure-based cloud infrastructure that supports these services, along with a number of other critical NHSBT systems and services, never once faltered and delivered 100% uptime throughout, he reports.

This cloud infrastructure is incredibly important to us, not just because it allows us to scale very easily, but also because of what it delivers in terms of user experience. Donors sign up and make appointments to donate blood out of altruism. It’s not something they have to do, it’s something they want to do, so we want to make that as easy and as convenient as possible for them.

For NHSBT, scalability means that donors can always access the site to register and book appointments. User experience, meanwhile, involves the roll-out of features such as real-time booking capabilities, so that donors can easily identify a time and location to donate that fits in with their other plans and commitments: and social media integration, so they can promote their donation on social media, hopefully setting a good example to friends and followers.

That’s the supply side of the blood business covered - but what about the demand side? Here, too, Microsoft Azure plays a part, as it hosts NHSBT’s Online Blood Ordering System (OBOS), which hospitals use to request the types of blood and volumes they need from the service.

Ian Trenholm
Ian Trenholm

NHSBT also uses Azure to host its Organ Donation Registry and is looking to cloud-based software to replace legacy supply chain systems that ensure that blood and platelet stocks are delivered to the hospitals that need them before they reach their expiry dates (35 days in the case of blood and 7 days in the case of platelets that help blood to clot). In that respect, Trenholm says, NHSBT faces the same pressures as any organisation running a complex supply chain involving perishable goods.

Increasingly, the cloud is where data created in next-generation sequencing activities is stored and analysed, too, he adds:

One of the things we do in our diagnostic servicing team is next-generation sequencing of blood, which is essentially taking a blood sample and using it to unpack someone’s DNA. That helps us do a better job of matching organs to recipients - but the problem is that, from a data point of view, a genetic sequence is massive.

Tackling shortages with data

In response, digital services director Anthony Evans and his team have developed a way of extracting these vast volumes of data from NHSBT’s genetic sequencers and exporting it to the cloud, where it can be analysed in Azure. Says Trenholm:

We’re the only blood service in the world that does this right now and we can only do it because the cloud gives us the unlimited space to store the data. If we’d attempted to do this with on-premise servers, we would never have got this service off the ground.

Other big data initiatives will follow, at least one of which aims to tackle NHSBT’s most pressing challenge: the shortage of blood from young people, black and South Asian communities and from people with rare blood types like A Negative. Says Trenholm:

Big data is our best hope of reshaping our donor base, by helping us dig down into supply and demand, prioritising appointments for priority donors and attracting more of them. My feeling is that I want to get to the point where we can do all these great things, and do them better, but also do them infrastructure-free. We’re not in the infrastructure business, we’re in the blood business, the organ donor business. In order to make the most of these precious, life-saving gifts from people, we should be using cloud to the maximum.

blood donation