Data and AI: The future of healthcare

Experts from the University of Liverpool and its partners give their views on the development of medical technology.

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What are the key trends to take note of in the future of healthcare? How can the NHS improve its rates of adoption and integration?

The view from pharma – Jim Weatherall, vice president of data science and AI, R&D, AstraZeneca

Today, the healthcare sector generates and has access to more data than ever before. Big data and artificial intelligence have the potential to revolutionise how we predict and prevent disease before patients get ill, improve treatment, and change how we make scientific
discoveries and develop new medicines.

At AstraZeneca, our vision is a future of individualised healthcare solutions focused on improved patient outcomes, driven by science and data. But to realise the potential of data for the benefit of patients, we need to work together. Academia, the NHS, government and industry are essential partners in this effort.

NHS data is a unique differentiator for the UK – the government acknowledged it as a key component in the NHS Long Term Plan – that should be harnessed to improve the health of the nation. This can be used to power new investments in life sciences research, monitor and manage disease therapies in real time, and drive efficient use of medical treatments and technologies. A clear governance framework will help to ensure that every time health data is to be collected, its use is clearly warranted, the patient’s privacy is protected, and the security of the data is upheld.

One key challenge is that the healthcare sector is behind many others in using data to drive actionable insights. It takes hard work to collect the right data, get data in the right shape, embed the right governance, implement the right analytics tools, and, most importantly, get that data into the hands of the right people to yield transformational benefits. Effective partnerships to enable the collection and sharing of findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable – or FAIR – health data will provide the foundation of sustainable healthcare systems.

I am passionate about ensuring the data we have is organised appropriately, analysed efficiently, and optimised fully to drive decisions. Working together, I believe we can unlock the potential of data to improve lives.

The view from the NHS – Helen Duckworth, deputy director of planning, performance and delivery, NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group

In recent years, analytical teams in the NHS have galvanised around the prospect of improved population health through data-driven insights using patient-level linked datasets. While the ambition is admirable, the execution was clunky. There were specific challenges around information governance, disparate administrative datasets, and a need for improved capacity and capability from within to maximise analytics in the process of decision-making, thereby improving patient care.

Within NHS Liverpool CCG, we have collaborated with our wider system partners to great success. We have established a patient-level linked health and care dataset to feed our system. It is organising itself to deliver integrated care around population segments. However, while just getting the data is a huge achievement in the healthcare environment, the challenges now begin as we start to maximise its use and realise the benefits.

This is where partnerships with industry and academia come into play. Strong partnerships with academia allow the NHS to harness the power of ground-breaking analytical techniques, ensuring that the newest concepts of machine learning and artificial intelligence can be brought to bear in the process of intelligence production in a real-world environment.

Over recent years, the University of Liverpool has worked with NHS Liverpool CCG to create a “research in residence” model, which embeds big data experts within our frontline analytical environment. This transfers much needed skills into our in-house teams and equips them to deal with capacity and capability challenges. Industry partners bring the knowledge and experience of taking products to market and executing end-to-end processes as efficiently as possible.

At NHS Liverpool CCG, we are committed to working with both academia and industry to continue mobilising intelligence to the heart of patient care and decision-making.

The view from academia – Simon Maskell, professor of autonomous systems, University of Liverpool

As someone working at the crossroads of engineering, statistics, and computer science who transitioned from industry into academia within the last decade, I am naturally drawn to data-led approaches to inform difficult real-world decisions.

I firmly believe that we can, and should, extract the information we need to benefit society from the big and small data that the world generates. At the University of Liverpool, we are pioneering the research, development, and application of next-generation data science and AI technologies to use extracted information to solve pressing challenges across a range of sectors.

It is not enough to drive forward state-of-the-art innovation while turning a blind eye to the pressing issues faced in the healthcare sector and beyond. Research should be informed by challenges that existing solutions cannot address.

This perspective demands that academia is closely coupled to real challenges and that we form partnerships with organisations that live and breathe the issues that we can help to solve. For academia, the public sector, and private sector organisations to work in synergy, we need to ensure that they have access to the technology and the skilled people they need to turn those advances into problems solved.

Universities routinely generate large numbers of highly skilled graduates and important research papers. However, at the University of Liverpool, our work with the NHS and AstraZeneca exemplifies other ways that partnerships can deliver value.

In collaboration with NHS Liverpool CCG, we have successfully seconded postdoctoral researchers into their organisation to understand where the application of data science would be most effective. We have also helped Liverpool CCG to understand that the marketing hype describing the boundaries between big data, data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning is not relevant to the reality of applying appropriate solutions to the most important problems.

Through partnership, we are embedding our research outputs in widely used pre-existing and free software packages. This approach provided AstraZeneca with an opportunity to harness the University of Liverpool’s advances to drive data-based decisions and accelerate new innovation. By working together, academia, industry, and healthcare providers can create a mutually beneficial trifecta, where data science and AI drive advances in health, wealth and prosperity for all.

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