The pressures on the NHS show no sign of abating. After the threat of yet another winter crisis, with a surge in patient numbers causing almost a third of hospital trusts in England to warn they needed urgent action to cope, could relief from some of these pressures come from a more effective use of data?
The consensus in healthcare technology circles is a resounding yes. The question is, given the scale of the problems facing the NHS, where do the data experts start?
Collette Johnson, head of medical at Plextek, says a priority is the use of data to better understand bed management. “Bed occupancy has traditionally been managed by teams of people, constantly on telephones, trying to understand where and when beds will be freed up. The result is that every day can feel like the winter crisis in hospitals because the pressure is increasing,” she says.
“Using data to understand behaviours and trends in bed management would help to ease the burden, and a group in Cambridge are currently addressing this through a collaboration between Addenbrookes hospital and Cambridge University, so hopefully progress will be made.”
Patient transportation could also benefit from better use of data, as Marc Engall, government account director at CA Technologies, explains: “Getting patients home after treatment usually requires a group of people calling local transport firms to collect patients who cannot arrange their own travel, a costly task for what is simply matching data around patient exit time, transport type and a postcode.
“Using application programming interfaces, a clinician could discharge a patient and have a car arrive at the right time, while notifying social care that the patient has gone home, saving millions every year on staffing costs and freeing up beds.”
However, the use of data to streamline services and save on time and costs offers a much broader range of benefits for the NHS.
The North East London commissioning support unit is using data gathered from a number of healthcare providers to map and segment patient populations in order to better target healthcare interventions and design more efficient services.
“We are able to tailor this to individual customer needs,” says business intelligence analyst Robert Sinfield. “For example, we’ve recently done a lot of work looking at primary health care population distribution for GP practices. This is new information for a lot of our commissioners, because they’ve never been able to see where a practice population lives; they can be very spread out or very confined around the area.
Making these solutions a reality that will tangibly ease pressures on the NHS will require a greater investment in data skills and expertise
“When they are thinking of changing services, for example, taking a practice out, this information can help them evaluate access, understand the travel times between all the practices, and demonstrate what could happen given different scenarios,” Mr Sinfield says.
Making these solutions a reality that will tangibly ease pressures on the NHS will require a greater investment in data skills and expertise. In the digital future, data practitioners could become an important a part of NHS staffing as medical staff, suggests Greg Hanson, Europe, Middle East and Africa vice president of cloud at data management specialists Informatica.
He says: “This is a multi-year journey, but as many other industries will testify, quick wins can be made and the earlier this begins, the quicker we can get to those cost savings and service improvements.”