Data science: how it will transform healthcare

As digitalisation and analytics grow, data science has a huge role to play in improving patient care. We find out how Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) is helping to harness the data to transform healthcare in the long term. 

By helping to harness the insights gained from everyday medical procedures, to driving scientific breakthroughs in areas like DNA sequencing, data science is set to bring about a dramatic revolution in future healthcare. In the NHS, the growing mountains of digitised healthcare-related data generated by the treatment of patients, and the results of clinical research, is a potential treasure trove of valuable information for clinicians.

Professor Christopher Yau, PhD Programme Director of HDR UK – the national institute for health data science – believes that unlocking this potential will lead to fundamental changes in patient care. He says data collected during the normal operation of the NHS could help his institute gain insights that will lead to better outcomes for patients. We talk to him to find out more.

Life-saving insights

Some of the most exciting and revolutionary changes will come from the data collected using new molecular technologies such as genomics, explains Yau. “Using DNA sequencing, we can delve into the nuts and bolts of the biology underlying diseases. This might allow us to learn something new and therefore come up with new cures or treatment regimes.”

The other exciting area, he says, is patient-generated data, collected on smartphone apps, wearable Fitbit-style devices or even through interaction with the internet. “Information that patients can provide themselves about exercise levels, heart rate, quality of sleep and more are rich sources of data that can transform the way we practise healthcare.”

Increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) will also help researchers and clinicians find insights in healthcare data. “Even when you don’t have a targeted question that you’re trying to answer, AI can help you to see if there are previously unknown patterns in the data that may be associated with poorer health outcomes or particular types of conditions,” explains Yau.

Overcoming obstacles

There are, however, challenges to conquer to make the most of health-related data. Many routinely collected datasets needed to answer important health questions exist in health and social care data, says Yau. But they must be standardised so that different datasets can be connected more easily to answer complex questions.

Finding a balance between privacy for patients and the optimum beneficial use of their health data is another issue to get right. “Many people may be happy to share data about their health as long as it is used for the right reasons, by approved people, and their privacy is preserved – so trust and anonymity are essential,” explains Yau. This is an area of particular interest to HDR UK, which is working with other organisations to establish how best to put sensitive data into trusted research environments, “where data custodians can control who can access data and establish the right legal and ethical constraints, to ensure that it is used appropriately”.

Additional challenges include the general shortage of data science skills – a situation that is particularly marked in the health sector, as the available talent is often lured away to other lucrative industries like finance, engineering and big tech.

Finally, says Yau, it’s critical to persuade clinicians to adopt the solutions this data insight might produce – there’s no patient benefit if they don’t. “So, increasingly, there's a case for health sector businesses to work intimately with frontline healthcare workers to understand their needs and to design solutions they can integrate into their routine practices,” he adds.

Worldwide reach

As a charity with work ongoing at 31 locations across the country, HDR UK has set itself the target of bringing together the multiple organisations – some local, some national – that contribute to the UK’s data ecosystem, to harmonise and unify this network.

Its goal is to make the datasets they hold accessible to appropriate researchers, anywhere in the world. But to achieve this, those datasets need to ‘talk’ to each other. “Historically, there have been many different IT systems and we need to make the datasets interoperable,” Yau explains. “That’s really important if we’re going connect these datasets in a way that allows you to get the best insights.”

The work of HDR UK has already brought some notable successes, such as its Health Data Research Innovation Gateway, a search engine-type tool that uses the names of diseases or even symptoms to identify relevant healthcare-related datasets. “A search engine is no use unless it has something to search, so the major achievement here was forming an alliance of healthcare data custodians to provide the data – and many of those organisations were doing so for the first time.”

Lessons learned

For the past two years, HDR UK has also worked closely with the NHS to use the data it holds to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, a collaboration Yau describes as hugely successful. “Analytical techniques could be brought to bear on national datasets, used to generate insights and then redeployed back into public health planning and policy,” he says.

“The question now is whether the same mechanisms can be extended to non-Covid research. The processes and key infrastructure have been put in place, so at least we’ve got the ball rolling.”

Solving the data science skills shortage is also in HDR UK’s sights: “We want to increase the visibility of health data research as a career option for young people,” stresses Yau. He adds: “You must be good with numbers and computers but there is no particular academic background that you need, otherwise – so it is an accessible career for many people.

“There are still many illnesses we struggle to treat – mental health conditions, neuro degeneration, cancer, cardio-vascular diseases. We’re going into schools and colleges to make the point that data science can make a real contribution to finding solutions for all these health problems.”

The revolution ahead for the healthcare system looks huge and HDR UK is already making great gains – but it needs more good people to jump on board.  


If you are experiencing a shortage in data science experts, get in touch today.

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