How data crunchers aid crunch decisions

How data crunchers aid crunch decisions

IT has a key role to play in driving efficiencies and improving outcomes.

It’s easy to imagine modern healthcare is all about patients undergoing surgery and researchers developing new treatments. However, a new and digital-savvy generation is emerging behind the scenes, whose talents lie in the capture, collation and analysis of data.

Daniel Ray, director of informatics at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) NHS Foundation Trust, has become one of the leaders of the UK’s fast-growing healthcare IT sector. Around 50 of his colleagues crunch the numbers, and another 80 staff are involved
in different aspects of the trust’s data projects.

“Our core functions are to underpin and support the hospital in delivering better care and support to patients, and to analyse the data we generate and acquire” says Ray. “The vast majority relates to primary care functions, so doctors collate it, we secure it and analyse it, then feed back our findings to doctors, nurses and senior management. The data could relate to something as large as an A&E department, or as small as a particular ward.

“We’ve got something like a couple of billion data entries, but of course that includes data from other UK hospitals and overseas.”

Around 140,000 prescriptions can now be generated electronically every week, and that doesn’t include related administration work. There’s been much talk in recent years about pressure on front-line nursing staff, and one of the most intriguing projects to come from Ray’s unit is the ‘clinical dashboard’. Information about a patient’s treatment is fed into the database each night, so nurses and doctors can access it the following day via mobile ward-based dashboards.

“I’ve been here eight years, and then everything was done on Excel spread-sheets,” recalls Ray. “Now all the consultants use hand-held devices, and the dashboard is there with everything the staff need.

“It tells you such things as a patient’s weight and food intake, when they last received treatment, and even how quickly the ward phones are answered.” Every NHS hospital has a sizeable database, of course, but Ray says UHB’s focus on in-house IT development means it has a far ‘richer’ store of information than any other.

“We’re very proud of the systems which have been created here to capture, manage and store data. It’s cheaper and more efficient than outsourcing data activity, and it’s all driven by the desire to treat patients better” he says. UHB’s electronic systems and data capture network was established before Ray arrived, but he has driven the introduction of sophisticated analysis, web-based tools and, intriguingly, commercialisation.

“We licence the use of ‘health intelligence’ software which we’ve designed to other hospitals, and every penny goes back to the NHS,” says Ray. “We also license it at a significantly lower rate than private sector providers, so it’s a win-win.”

Another innovation is the My Health project, allowing patients to access all their health records, including treatment details and lab results, securely via a virtual clinic. “It hasn’t been going long, but 7,000 patients have already signed up, and over the next couple of years, I’d expect that number to increase exponentially.”

Ray gained an unwanted, but very personal, insight into the initiative’s benefits when his mother suffered breast cancer last year. “She’s fine now, but at the time, she was pleased to be able to read all her lab results and everything about her treatment, from home, and she also got in touch with other patients suffering from the same cancer,” admits Ray. “Some doctors weren’t sure how My Health would be received, but now they’ve seen the feedback from patients, everyone is convinced it will be a great asset.”