Using digital technology to provide health care solutions

Image: Dr Shane McKee, left, and Stephen Barry at the digital technology event at Narrow Water Castle, Co Down

By Una Murphy

Technology experts, public servants and entrepreneurs gathered in Narrow Water Castle, Warrenpoint, recently to hear how digital technology is helping citizens in Northern Ireland with new Electronic Care Records and pilot ‘Social Prescribing’ projects.

The event organiser GovCampConnect said the discussions brought together people interested in digital government on the island of Ireland. They said it was an opportunity for people to share their stories about “stuff that matters”.

Narrow Water Castle

The venue, Narrow Water Castle, surrounded by stunning scenery was a sight to behold on this reporter’s arrival on a free bus laid on by the organisers from Belfast.

Writer CS Lewis had stood at the Cloughmore Stone above the town of Rostrevor looking down on Carlingford Lough and said this was how he imagined Narnia, according one of the organisers Brian Cleland, a research associate in data science at Ulster University, which was among the sponsors.

Dr Shane McKee, a consultant in genetic medicine in Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and Stephen Barry, a NHS project manager, gave workshops on some of the health challenges to which they hoped digital technology could provide solutions.

“Turning the corner in health is a social thing”, Stephen said. “Everybody can help, the community and voluntary sector, as well as health professionals”, he said.

He outlined how GP practices had helped to identify people liable to develop diabetes. GP practices were given an algorithm to identify people who were liable to develop diabetes due to their age, and BMI (Body Mass Index).

As most readers will know you use code to tell a computer what to do. An algorithm is a list of rules to follow in order to solve a problem. Before you write code you need an algorithm.

Stephen said the data produced after using the algorithm was further refined by qualitative information from nurses in the GP practice who were asked to find those people who would most benefit from getting help through ‘Social Prescribing’.

Social Prescribing could involve coding, data, analytics as well as help from within the community, he added.

‘Befrienders’ in the community can contact people to encourage them to take action to improve their health, including taking more exercise. ‘Navigators’ such as a community worker or nurse could guide people to attend groups to improve their health, he said.

“People would be encouraged to change their routine and think more about their health”, he added.

Stephen said that Social Prescribing was “non clinical prescriptions” which could avoid costly medical intervention later, particularly in chronic illnesses such as diabetes which now affects 96,000 people among the 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland.

He said his pilot project had identified several hundred people who were ‘pre-diabetic’ and were able to change their habits to ensure they enjoyed better health and avoided the worsening of the condition – which can lead to amputation.

Dr Shane McKee outlined how Electronic Care Records have been successfully developed for NHS patients in Northern Ireland.

The doctor added that the greatest waste of resources within health care was the time spent by patients on waiting lists or in hospital. Patients were disempowered and limited to what they could do to help themselves.

“People need to take more control of their health”, he added.

Healthcare digitalisation could help by providing a information platform for health professionals to access records for NHS patients in Northern Ireland, bringing together the multiple data stored in different IT systems within the five health and social care boards in Northern Ireland, Shane said.

The Electronic Care Record was already “pulling together” information such as patients’ blood results and MRI scans from several locations, he added.

More from Dr McKee here: (blog) and (video)




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