Data will transform healthcare, says Lord Ara Darzi

Every hour, of every day, incredible digital innovations are transforming industries around the globe, fuelled by new technology, data and now artificial intelligence. But when it comes to change, not all industries are created equal. The healthcare sector is lagging behind. Professor Lord Ara Darzi is on a mission to change this. He thinks the time is now.

“Whether it’s entertainment, finance or travel, digital transformation has made astounding changes to many aspects of our lives. But in health we haven’t moved on at the same speed. This needs to change,” says Lord Darzi, former health minister and co-director of Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI).

“We should be proud of our incredible history of innovation in the UK. If we look at the last century, roughly 40 per cent of the biggest discoveries in medicine and healthcare globally have come from this country. This is an extremely creative nation. But we need to ignite more of it and foster an environment in which it will flourish. Right now, data and digital health are key to this.”

Lord Darzi knows a thing or two about healthcare innovation. He’s renowned globally for pioneering robotic techniques in medical operations and has published more than 1,200 peer-reviewed research papers to date. He continues to work actively as a surgeon, specialising in minimally invasive surgery, and believes using patient health data could unleash a new era.

A great convergence assisted by data

“Right now, we’re living in probably the most exciting time in my career. Why is it different now? Historically people were trained and educated in verticals; you were a biologist, an engineer, computer scientist or chemist. What data and analytics has done is converge all of these knowledge bases and brought them together. It’s facilitating amazing discoveries,” he says.

“Data already plays a monumental part in the everyday delivery of healthcare. Without it, it would be like switching the electricity off in a hospital. That’s how dependent we are. Look at the coronavirus epidemic. The utilisation of data is critical to defining its spread, the global risk, finding patient zero and those who are exposed. Data can be transformational in terms of public health and here in the UK we have a unique asset to work with.”

Healthcare data stats

The NHS is sitting on one of the most remarkable datasets in human existence; fairly standardised, detailed and historical, it accounts for the records of 65 million people. A recent report from the IGHI said the UK is the best placed large economy in the world to use its health data for transformative health, scientific and economic impact.

“It is the most comprehensive longitudinal patient-level dataset of any health system globally. We should be proud of the data. But we haven’t utilised it to the maximum benefit of patients and the taxpayer. If we don’t utilise it right now, there are countries like China or the United States with much bigger populations that will catch up very quickly,” says Lord Darzi.

“We now need a national conversation on this issue. Firstly, we need to engage the public fully in communicating the value that could be created utilising NHS data. We also need to do a better job engaging with citizens on crucial issues such as privacy, ethics and security.”

What well-used health data can do

Data-driven breakthroughs champion this cause. A computer algorithm developed by an international team, including researchers from Google Health and Imperial College London, is now as effective as human radiologists in spotting breast cancer from x-ray images. Artificial intelligence (AI) worked on de-identified health data from 29,000 women.

Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has used deep-learning algorithms to build software that can identify dozens of eye diseases from scans, learning from data. Recently, powerful new antibiotics were discovered using machine-learning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These could be used to fight antimicrobial resistance.

“There are reasonable fears among the public when it comes to data use. The issue bothers me, it bothers us all; I too am a patient, we’re all patients. Yet we can anonymise data now, we can de-identify it. Patients must also feel they’re in charge of their own data. Above all, what we all want from its use is better health outcomes,” says Lord Darzi.

“We have to ask how data will benefit the public in terms of disease prevention, predicting disease, better quality of care and improving the efficiency of healthcare delivery. Anything that creates health value also has economic value. We alone cannot do this without partnerships.”

Digital health needs upfront investment

To maximise the potential of NHS data, the UK government will need to make substantial upfront investments estimated to be billions of pounds to upgrade its digital infrastructure, both hardware and software, so systems talk to one another, not forgetting the talent to run these operations.

“I hope in this year’s government spending review we’re going to see a big investment in data. We need to attract data scientists and engineers to work on it. This has happened in banking and financial services, why not healthcare? Moving on with a regulatory framework will also be crucial,” says Lord Darzi.

“If there’s economic value, then we have to figure out what partnership model works in the best interest to UK plc. It could be sharing the actual profit. Let’s not forget it could also create many new jobs. I would like more small and medium-sized enterprises involved with health data, working in partnership with the NHS. There’s also a huge amount of potential for testbeds and sandboxes. The return on the investment will be huge if we can get this right.”

It is palpable that Lord Darzi wants change and digital health, powered by data, is key to this. Then again, he’s seen a lot of changes in the last four decades practising medicine.

“Why do I get up in the morning? It’s to do something better for the patient I am seeing. I’ve seen remarkable innovation in medicine since I left medical school. That’s what keeps me happy; innovation and quality,” he says.