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Data Versus the Pandemic

For healthcare providers worldwide, data has been at the heart of the response to COVID-19. In England, frontline responsibility for dealing with the pandemic has rested on the shoulders of the National Health Service (NHS). As Ming Tang, chief data and analytics officer for NHS England and NHS Improvement explains in episode six of season two of Future Says, a data-driven approach within the organization has been invaluable to her and her colleagues.

Very much an unsung hero, Tang is part of a committed team of NHS data analysts that has developed a suite of tools that’ve helped medical staff achieve optimal outcomes for COVID-19 patients. Their new analytical applications are also delivering vital insight to NHS managers as they balance overstretched resources and unprecedented demand.

With more than 1.3 million employees, the NHS is Europe’s largest employer. Even before the pandemic struck, this vast organization was handling an incredible 564 million patient interactions a year. Given the immense scale of the organization and the services it provides, digital transformation was already a top priority. That process is being driven by NHSx, a collaboration among various public sector departments which has, among other developments, established the first NHS AI Lab.

But as Tang highlights, the pandemic sparked a steep change in the speed and scale with which NHS data is being utilized. One of the most successful initiatives introduced by the organization over the past two years is the CHESS (COVID-19 Hospitalisation in England Surveillance System) database. This database lets workers analyze demographic variables, risk factors, treatments, and outcomes for patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. Similarly, the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging database collates scans and X-rays to facilitate a better understanding of the disease. To offer medical professionals even more insight, the SGSS (Second Generation Surveillance System) combines demographic and diagnostic information drawn from lab tests. 

In conversation with host Sean Lang, Tang outlines the principles that’ve anchored these success stories. Key themes that emerge include a strong commitment to cooperation, democratization, and training. “Analysts really want to work together,” Tang says. Adopting a decentralized, federated approach, they’ve built a 16,000-strong ‘AnalystX’ community across the organization. Successful projects are shared, celebrated, and recognized. Tang also says they’ve prioritized learning and personal development as well. Here the emphasis is on ‘soft skills’ that help analysts better understand customer problems and deliver timely, useful products.

Clearly the NHS isn’t short on data. The challenge, Tang explains, is managing and organizing the sheer number and variety of the siloes that exist. One way of overcoming this is to curate data around the person, rather than services and institutions. Ultimately, this provides a more meaningful appreciation of the patient experience.

Tang isn’t the first Future Says guest to stress the importance of diversity. More specifically, she sees real value in neurodiversity, and encouraging contributions from people with varied thought patterns. On similar lines, an ethical framework offers broader rewards. Principles such as understandability will build trust in, and therefore adoption of, AI and ML-based solutions. Moreover, Tang doesn’t intend to put boundaries on collaboration. She’ll continue to reach out to third parties and colleagues alike. As she says in her own words, “We can learn from anyone, and we’re also happy to share what we’re doing.”

In public surveys, the NHS regularly tops the list of the most trusted and most recognized brand names on the planet. As we gradually move beyond the pandemic, Tang expects the organization pivot towards a new era in personalized medicine. Doing so, there’s little doubt that using data better will grow in significance, helping to strengthen what’s already a very special relationship between the NHS and the people it serves.  

To watch the full interview with Ming Tang, and all the preceding episodes of Future Says, click here.