Health Tech World talks to University of Birmingham Professor Elizabeth Sapey, Director of PIONEER Health Data Research Hub for Acute Care, about how Big Data and AI are transforming healthcare.
Working on the ‘fast-paced and slightly chaotic’ NHS frontline, Professor Elizabeth Sapey is all too aware of the gaps in the health system.
This clinician is a Respiratory Medicine Consultant at University Hospitals Birmingham and Professor of Acute Respiratory Medicine at the University of Birmingham.
“I learned pretty quickly that there was very little research or innovation in hospital emergency departments,” Prof. Sapey tells Health Tech World.
“People are often firefighting. They’re just trying to deal with the situation in front of them.
“They often don’t have the time to really think about how to improve the services they’re providing using evidence and how to use health data to innovate.”
Prof. Sapey has developed a special interest in data innovation.
As Director of PIONEER, a partnership between University Hospitals Birmingham, the University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Ambulance Trust, Prof. Sapey has a mission to integrate data from siloed healthcare systems and build collaborations between academia and industry.
By doing so, those systems can begin to make a difference in how patients are treated, improving outcomes and services.
“There are over 800 different care providers in the West Midlands region alone.
“These operate as health data silos, so there is no data connectivity in general. That has a huge impact on the care that we provide.
“If I’m working in the emergency department and a patient comes in to see me, it’s very rare that I know anything about the journey they’ve been on before they arrive.
“That information is vital.”
Prof. Sapey recognised early on that the only way to make inroads would be to bring data together, to enable clinicians to make earlier diagnoses and begin treatment sooner.
“A significant proportion of people with chronic conditions are diagnosed in the emergency department at a really late stage,” she says.
“But when you look back at their electronic record, you can see multiple potential points where that diagnosis could have been made earlier, and maybe you could have had some impact.
“Almost a quarter of cancers are diagnosed in emergency services.
“There are often clues scattered across different health care providers, that might have made you able to diagnose that condition earlier. So bringing that data together is vital.”
A patient might come into hospital with multiple health conditions affecting their kidneys
In this case, the clinician would need to adjust the medicines to ensure that they don’t build up in the body and cause a toxic response.
By utilising health data from previous admissions, clinicians can get an ‘electronic nudge’ if the patient’s kidney function is down which automatically helps them prescribe the appropriate dose, preventing patient harm.
Prof Sapey adds:
“Of course, with digital health becoming more and more important, the scope for this is greater and the kind of impacts we’re seeing are significant.”
The pandemic triggered an explosion of digital health tools, from consumer-focused health trackers to NHS-approved medical devices.
As a clinician, Prof. Sapey has a particular interest in apps that enable people to better care for themselves, particularly those with chronic health conditions.
However, the algorithms behind these apps are only as good as the data that drives them.
Prof Sapey explains:
“Certain groups of patients have a lot of electronic health data. However, others may live or work in areas that don’t have electronic health records, so they have very little electronic health data.
“If you build the algorithm on a certain type of patient or proportion of the population, you don’t know how well that app is going to work across the wider population.
“It’s vital that we understand the breadth of data these tools were built on to make sure that it’s truly representative of the patient population that you’ll be using that app to help.
“Of course, there’s a regulatory process with software as a medical device, and it’s really important that apps really have an impact on health and go through that process.”
From ChatGPT to DALL-E to Midjourney, AI has captured the cultural zeitgeist over the past 12 months. Its impact on healthcare is perhaps even more far-reaching.
The West Midlands is home to a number of SMEs working with clinicians and health tech companies to develop AI for use in health.
While AI in healthcare is very much in the exploratory stage, Prof. Sapey sees it having a significant impact in the long-term.
One area is the analysis of medical images, where AI-powered technologies can scan for signs that the human eye may have missed.
Prof. Sapey says:
“We generate a huge amount of medical images. However, if you’re doing a scan for one reason, you get fixated on looking at that one thing.
“You might miss other things that are vitally important for that patient, like a nodule that could be an early sign of cancer.
“AI is already beginning to be really important in supplementing what we do as clinicians and making sure that we don’t accidentally miss things.”
AI will also enable clinicians to bring together data that’s captured in different healthcare systems at different times.
Prof. Sapey says:
“These complex diagnostic journeys are where we’re already seeing AI beginning to break through.
“It’s not embedded in everyday clinical practice yet. We’ve got a way to go but it’s so exciting.”
Home to digitally-advanced healthcare providers and a thriving health tech industry, the West Midlands is playing its part in driving this AI and data revolution.
Meanwhile, the Combined Authority is ‘really engaged’ and is working closely with data providers to improve services, Prof. Sapey says.
The mayor also understands the value of data and is championing its importance, she adds.
Prof Sapey says:
“We have some great companies here that are beginning to work with patients, clinicians and healthcare providers, to bring that data together.
“There’s a fantastic population of SMEs and other technology companies working with us to improve health. So the West Midlands is a really exciting place to be.”