Ecosystem

Establishing the North as a digital health powerhouse

23 Mar, 2017

Dr Hakim Yadi OBE is Chief Executive of the Northern Health Science Alliance.


The North of England led the world during the industrial revolution. It is now at the forefront of a 21st century revolution in health innovation, centred on information and data. This is transforming the way we think about the delivery and management of health and social care.

The North is now recognised as having one of the most innovative clusters in digital health. It has a vibrant support system of researchers, industry, investors and startups. This will be evident at the international Informatics for Health conference that will be held in the North in April. But that recognition didn’t happen overnight. The hospitals and universities that make up the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) have worked hard over many years to establish the right environment for this change.

The NHSA is an alliance of Northern research universities, NHS teaching trusts and academic health science networks. We were founded to help the North to work together, so that its strengths in health science – through our universities, hospitals and businesses – were recognised through funding, industry investment and as a voice on the national stage.

To do this we carried out a huge mapping exercise. We visited all of our members from Lancaster, to Manchester, to Newcastle, and spoke to them about what they were doing. In turn, they showed us their areas and institutions of excellence – and we brought it all together.

It soon became clear the North had a critical mass of expertise in health data and health data science. That includes, but is not limited to the Farr Institute, NorthWest Ehealth, Sci-Tech at Daresbury and soon the National Institute for Smart Data Innovation.

Spreading the word

We recognised that this expertise wasn’t enough. To make an impact we needed to shout about it – and make it work for the health and wealth of the people in the North.

Our plan was Health North: Connected Health Cities (CHC), which explained to the government how we could help make people in the region healthier by tying together this expertise and applying a revolutionary new data model called a Learning Health System (LHS). The LHS that we are establishing in the North don’t just unite expertise. They also bring together the people, data and methods needed to improve local services for local people. Working with the North’s population through citizens juries and public forums, we are learning patients’ requirements.

In March 2015 we were awarded £20 million in the Budget. That money is paying for ground-breaking research through CHC into projects ranging from end-of-life care to childhood obesity. It is supporting jobs and creating investment through capitalising on the Digital Health Science in the North. It has created a hub.

From the North, benefiting the whole UK

Now the North is leading the way in capitalising on a rapidly emerging health data science sector. And it has the potential to benefit the whole of the UK.

Broad civic computation initiatives, such as Smart Cities, have stalled where they don’t have enough focus on problem-solving. The CHC programme now provides a powerful set of focuses, connecting services across place-based organisations through connected data and analytics. So, unsurprisingly, the CHC pilots are attracting interest from other sectors and countries who see the CHC programme as a scalable exemplar for the rest of the UK and other international cities.

The CHC programme is providing a platform for testing the implementation of the learning health systems methodology. Once proven, it can be easily scaled from the North, in different disease domains across the UK.

Why a regional approach makes sense

This task is too big to be done nationally top-down, and it has failed in the past. It needs to be done at a level where you can improve systems and adapt them easily. Doing these projects in the North makes them scalable, which makes it them attractive across the UK.

Projects run by innovative companies such as uMotif, an NHSA partner, which recently announced use of a simple app could save the NHS £1bn by helping those with long-term conditions track their symptoms further demonstrate the amazing work being done here.

Because of the innovation in health data taking place in the North of England, projects are being shaped that impact the health of the entire UK and beyond. CHC is already in talks with interested parties in the US and Singapore who can see the potential of the work being done in the North.

And this work has had a further knock-on effect. Now the NHSA has been asked to input into the government’s Industrial Strategy. We also sit on the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Advisory Board.

Through growing the North’s health data sector we’re giving the region a greater voice. Packed as we are with health data experts, institutes, innovative start-ups and more, that’s a good thing for the health, and wealth, of the whole UK.

Image credit: William Hook / Flickr

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