NHS uses data analytics for "sickness surveillance system"

09 February 2018

The NHS has implemented a “sickness surveillance system” to help plan for surges in demand over the winter.

Data gathered by Public Health England (PHE) are being used by NHS England’s operational monitoring teams to study winter trends, and to help give early warnings about rising outbreaks of flu, respiratory syncytial virus, norovirus, as well as other acute seasonal illnesses.

PHE first gathered these data in 2012 to try and predict illnesses that could have impacted the Olympic Games.

Since then, the organisation has gradually increased its scope and content and says it now carries out a comprehensive daily data collection across GP practices, the 111 service, out of hours practices, and A&E departments. Regional winter operations teams are feeding this information back into NHS England’s system to help manage pressures and anticipate surges.

Keith Willett, NHS England’s medical director for acute care, says: “The breadth and variety of surveillance data from PHE gives us vital time to put escalation plans in place to free up beds and reconfigure wards. We can plan how to best provide care to a higher number of patients with a specific illness, and to corral patients who are suffering the same illnesses. It also means we can better predict when things will return to normal and plan accordingly.”

The data are being used alongside other information to anticipate demand for the week or so ahead.

PHE medical director Paul Cosford points out that even at relatively moderate temperatures, there is almost a four per cent rise in deaths and nearly a one per cent increase in emergency admissions for every one degree drop in temperature.

“A combination of Met Office weather alerts and the PHE surveillance data, which includes syndromic data, offers the NHS vital tools for approaching seasonal demand for health care,” he says.

According to the NHS, there are around three visits to A&E departments for one emergency hospital admission during winter. It says the findings of its data will enable it to anticipate rises in hospital admissions and produce a planned response. This could include, for example, rescheduling planned surgery in advance to avoid inconveniencing patients, as well as freeing-up beds and converting wards from elective to emergency care for patients with conditions such as respiratory problems.

It adds that planning also allows hospitals to isolate infectious patients rather than unintentionally spreading them around multiple wards, something that is particularly important with the norovirus which causes outbreaks of diarrhoea and ward closures.

Commenting on the move, IT services provider Insight UK says the new NHS “sickness surveillance system” and the use of data analytics represent a positive step towards a better-informed health service. Darren Hedley, the company’s head of public sector, says: “Data holds incredible promise for the healthcare sector – whether it is to better provision healthcare services as in this case, improve the accuracy of diagnoses, or indeed the accuracy of recommended treatments.”

Hedley continues by saying that combining data analytics with key technologies – such as cloud, IoT, AI, etc. – is crucial for all organisations, particularly those such as the NHS.

“With often limited resources and incredible pressure on budgetary decisions, it is vital that holistic IT strategies are developed that incorporate these technologies not in isolation but together. This will be the best way to ensure technologies are properly exploited and patient-centric goals are met. After all, failing to do so will stunt the NHS’ ability to deliver the best possible outcomes to the people it serves.”