There has never been a busier time for the UK’s health and social care system. The NHS is facing increased pressure from a number of challenges caused by internal and external factors.
A system under pressure
Since the NHS began in 1948, a rise in population and life expectancy has caused financial pressure. The costs continue to rise.
On top of increased life expectancy, chronic disease prevalence has risen dramatically over the previous decades. So we have people living longer and suffering from diseases that require regular NHS visits. This has caused an NHS overload with 243 million NHS appointments annually, that’s over 460 appointments each minute!
Other sectors already use big data and predictive analytics to good effect. Banks can handle customer complaints more efficiently, retail can create targeted advertising, and utilities can predict demand spikes. There is no reason why this type of analytics can’t be applied to reduce waiting times, improve disease management, and predict patient flows through the health system.
Data source: NHS England
Data and analytics in healthcare
In recent years, the volume of data available within the NHS has increased exponentially. Making efficient use of this wealth of data can have positive effects for both social and economic outcomes. Moreover, what is healthy for the NHS’s budget is healthy for the patients as well, in the form of better services.
Modern day computing power, combined with the drop in price of data storage, means big data analytics is becoming more achievable. The positives for using predictive data analytics to reveal current patterns and trends are clear. It has the potential to save money and improve health outcomes. Indeed, it could have the potential to revolutionise the way we run health and social care in the UK, and worldwide. The NHS is beginning to use these types of analysis. Predictive models using historical data can effectively and reliably predict the future risk of complications from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. From this, timely interventions can be enforced to reduce future disease complications and to minimise the additional costs caused by more appointments and resources.
Insight driven healthcare in NHS Scotland
Big data analytics is being used well sporadically throughout the UK in order to deliver better health and financial outcomes.
A great example of using data to improve outcomes is the success story of NHS Scotland. NHS Scotland started to adopt electronic health records nationwide in 2011 and this has led to the increased availability of digitised data in recent years.
To work alongside NHS Scotland’s data estate, they have implemented innovative analytical software to achieve their ambitions of improving health and cost-efficiency.
In regards to storage of data prior to analysis, another important area where NHS Scotland has improved their analytics capability is by moving their data into the cloud. This means a reduction in storage costs and it also offers an open pathway to big data. NHS Scotland have been using these methods to improve analytics in diabetes care and results so far are indicative of the strong improvements that big data analytics can bring. These findings have been extrapolated and applied to NHS England (see the figure below).
NHS Scotland has used informatics technology to provide an integrated care model for diabetes management. Analytical knowledge-driven projects like this have led to significant health outcome improvements and cost savings.
The time to act
There are, of course, some barriers to a seamless data analytics offering, big data usage takes organisation. Not just in terms of recruiting people with the right skills, but also the IT infrastructure for data storage and access. Moreover, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) will enforce new data regulations, coming into place during spring 2018. This will mean a stricter overall governance of the sharing of data. This will hamper the flow of data within the organisation. The NHS will need to give this particular area some thought in terms of its internal data governance.
After increased pressure from the public and senior stakeholders, the government’s recent movement to increase health and social care funding in the latest budget could make life easier for the NHS. However, for senior decision makers in the NHS, budgets remain tight and the constant battle to keep their heads above water remains.
The benefits are clear, and in the case of NHS Scotland they are proven. The NHS needs to embrace a more objective and data driven environment, and this will involve a leap of faith and a change of culture, as well as financial input.