Data analytics is key to informing lifestyle choices, but are patients getting the education they need?


Data analytics is key to informing lifestyle choices, but are patients getting the education they need?

Data has become the most valuable resource in the world and is often described in many circles as the ‘new oil’.

Entire industries are now being driven by the use of information and analytics to identify long-term trends or predict needs for particular services.

The health service, and the NHS in particular, has amassed a huge amount of data in its 70-year history, both patient information and operational and commercial data.

Yet, despite being one of the most data rich industries in the world, healthcare remains ideas poor when it comes to using this information to its full potential.

Health services in the UK are under extreme pressure – just look at the current A&E crisis – and an ageing population, coupled with increasingly complex care and social needs of communities means front line staff are struggling to keep up with demand.

There does, however, remain an amount of culpability among the patients themselves, who are adopting unhealthy lifestyle habits and then demanding high quality services be there as and when needed.

The UK has one of the highest rates of obesity among children, according to the Medical Research Centre, and about 5m people have been diagnosed with diabetes costing about £10bn a year.

And this number is rising every year and it is thought that about 40% of health problems are now partially self-inflicted by poor lifestyle choices.

Poor diet, lack of exercise and excess consumption of alcohol and tobacco products are adding to unhealthy lifestyles and this is just adding to the pressure facing the health service.

Then there is the funding issue, which is always a bone of contention and has become a distracting political football among the political class. Despite consecutive governments claiming higher health spending year on year, there never seems to be enough money available.

So, if that is the case, the question becomes how to make the most of the money available and how can patients be helped to make better lifestyle decisions and take more ownership of their own health.

Health ownership as a concept is not necessarily a new phenomenon, fitness plans and food diaries have been around for decades.

But the rise of mobile technology has spawned a never-ending list of apps and devices aimed at assisting healthier lifestyles, providing instant and insightful data to users to help them improve their health and wellbeing, or show progress through diets.

Think FitBit, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, Nike+, the list goes on.

Again, all of these devices are only adding to the mass of health data now available to patients, but like the health service as a whole, not enough information is being provided to show how all this data can be used effectively.

One idea, and perhaps the simplest one, is to open access to this information to a user’s healthcare provider – whether this be their GP or specialist – who will be able to track and interpret the information to get a longer term, real world picture, of a patient’s lifestyle rather than relying on the patient’s honesty.

On the one hand this would assist healthcare professionals to design more local and personalised services based on real data, helping reduce pressures on waiting times by removing the need for emergency care or serving as an early warning for when a patient may be at risk of certain health issues – like diabetes or heart problems.

On the other hand, opening up patient data will always throw up the issue of privacy and ensuring the security of ‘open access’ health data is a must before this becomes widely adopted or accepted.

Another idea, is to create more crowd-sourcing opportunities, allowing patients to investigate the health and wellbeing services most suitable for them or which they like the idea of.

Allowing patients to get input, ideas and services from a larger online community will help to promote more choice and inform better care decisions, potentially leading to longer lasting changes in lifestyle factors, reducing the risk of future health problems.

Similarly, patients would be able to use their own data, and that from other people, to co-ordinate recommendations, appointments, classes and resources with other patient groups or people looking to achieve similar goals to them.

Making it easier for patients to find groups and put themselves in a social setting with people aiming for the same goals is achievable by using data and existing crowd-source platforms and would no doubt promote healthier lifestyles.

Utilising patient data, whether through the use of analytics, machine learning and dashboards in a professional health environment, or informing individual patients at the most local level has become essential to alleviate the immense pressure facing the health sector.

With the NHS strained to breaking point, changes need to be made sooner rather than later.