How data analytics can revolutionise healthcare

The numbers are truly mind-boggling. According to various sources, we are now producing 2.5 exabytes of data every day, equivalent to 90 years of HD video; and by 2025, the global datasphere is expected to grow to 163,000 exabytes.

The problem is we are not able to exploit this data deluge for anything meaningful: only somewhere between 0.5pc and 1pc of it is being used for operational decision-making.

Making sense of large amounts of data should be a priority for every organisation. Data analytics can give insights into transactions, customers, systems and environments to help companies identify opportunities, optimise performance and avoid risks.

In marketing and sales, firms can pull in details about their customers from diverse sources such as Twitter, Facebook, emails and online forums to gain a better understanding of their needs and deal with these proactively. But data analytics is having the most impact in the healthcare sector, where there are lessons for all organisations, not just those in the medical space.

Understanding patients

Mark Singleton, head of business intelligence at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Foundation Trust, says a big challenge is the need for WWL to reduce A&E waiting times, compounded by the growing strain placed on the NHS in terms of demand, funding, staff and resources.

WWL worked with analytics specialist Qlik to provide staff with live intelligence. “We developed an app that monitors the time between when a patient is referred to a hospital by their GP and when they are seen and treated, helping us to achieve the national target,” Mr Singleton says.

“Data analytics has also helped us to reduce A&E waiting times, giving us a greater understanding of where patients are in their care – improving discharge levels, reducing delays and minimising readmissions. The visual management and alerts help us to ensure patients are prioritised in the right order, achieving a reduced median length of stay by 30 minutes.”

Thanks to its investment in pattern analysis, WWL is also able to predict when it will face maximum pressure. “We see around 280 patients per day, but this number fluctuates a lot,” Mr Singleton adds. “Now we have predictive intelligence, we can plan accordingly. The app can even take in weather data and learn from trends. We can predict what the demand will be like for the next quarter or going into next year.”

Children’s hospital Alder Hey has turned to IBM’s artificial intelligence system Watson for its analytics needs. It is aiming to become the UK’s first cognitive hospital, says paediatric and neonatal surgeon Iain Hennessey, its clinical director of innovation. “Analysing data in this way will help us understand much better how our patients and their parents are feeling ,” he says. “There is the potential for clinicians here to make a hospital stay for a child less daunting by providing a more personalised service while being able to identify clinical trends.”

Mr Hennessey can see myriad other opportunities for this technology, including proactively matching suitable patients to clinical studies, and monitoring admission patterns to help with bed planning.

Openness is key

For organisations to truly bene t from data analytics, they need to take an open approach. As Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer at healthcare services firm EMIS Group, notes : “Open standards are not a ‘nice-to-have’ for IT in the NHS – they are essential to support the development of radical ways of working,” he says.

“Shared standards mean clever ideas can be implemented more easily – and that means quicker benefits for NHS efficiency and patient care. Success will only come through true collaboration across the board.”

However, Mohsen Bayati, associate professor of operations, information and technology at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says analytics is not a panacea: “You need the human influence as well. Companies are guilty of jumping on the ‘big data is king’ bandwagon by collecting as much data as possible, but unless you know you are asking the right questions, it’s unlikely to pay off.”

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