Treasure in the cloud
The NHS has the opportunity to become a vibrant hub in the emerging data economy, but it needs to make some key attitudinal adjustments and entrust the enabling plumbing to the cloud if it is to realise this potential.
The shift from being a disparate landscape of IT-dependent silos to becoming a data-focused force of collaboration and shared development can only happen if stakeholders across the healthcare sector stop seeing IT investment as an end in itself or a panacea for recurring problems. They must concentrate instead on realising the benefits of pooled resources and the development of skill sets that can exploit a dawning age of artificial intelligence (AI) in which data will be the dominant currency.
This is the vision of UKCloud Health, a company with strong roots in the public sector, which believes that unless communities throughout the sector start to harness the power of data, and to collaborate where possible, they will find it increasingly difficult to pursue important research projects in their traditional isolation.
“There is not enough room for everyone to be individual players,” says Iain Patterson, Chief Digital Officer at UKCloud Health. “Today’s technology is built around data and creating the markets that will exploit it most effectively, and the cloud is the best way to access and exploit it.”
He says the obstacles to embracing the cloud, quite simply, are people and policies that lag behind what technology can actually do, and processes that are founded on traditional business cases rather than looking to the benefits of a collaborative future.
“The barriers to cloud adoption are based on fear. People ask: How do we know it’s secure? What are you doing about security? And it is counter to IT strategy in so many trusts, where you have large IT functions based on proprietary technology, and can feel you are in far more control. But what the NHS really needs today is collaboration, driving across KPIs and policy, demonstrating that you want to harness the benefits of interoperability throughout every area of the health services.”
Director of Life Sciences at UKCloud Health, Pete Rossi, offers the amount of data generated by one client, Genomics England, as an example of the scalable power of data in this context. The raw data associated with 100,000 genomes amounts to 20 petabytes – a practically unimaginable volume, which would require two dozen racks of tin to store conventionally, and iron girders to support the physical infrastructure.
Holding that volume of data in the cloud not only dispenses with the infrastructure, but potentially gives a host of stakeholders – primary and secondary care professionals, pharmaceutical and academic researchers, and charity research studies – the opportunity to collaborate and achieve outcomes in their respective fields.
“Data in a vacuum has no value – but give communities a way to access and analyse it at speed, and its relevance grows exponentially,” says Rossi. “One of the things we’re seeing at the moment is that data owners are very protective. They have spent a lot of time working on a programme to collect it, from patients and other entities, and bringing it together for research. They see the cloud as a threat. If they start sharing data, other organisations come in and claim to have solved the problem, rather than the researcher who has done all the hard work.”
Softening this attitude by enabling a communications network among stakeholders, and targeting collaborative areas – for example, on projects that are often being duplicated across multiple trusts – is a lynchpin of UKCloud Health’s vision.
“It makes sense from a business perspective, but it’s also an unselfish way of helping people to be part of that community and to share their experiences, if not their data, to begin with,” says Patterson. “If we change the way we think, it changes the way we talk about things, and ultimately how we do things. We’re just facilitating these conversations. We have 220 partners in our network. That’s a rich environment, with plenty to talk about which is not competitive. They have an awful lot in common that just isn’t shared at the moment.”
“We’re not presuming to be data scientists ourselves,” says Rossi. “We’re not here to do the science. We’re fundamentally about the plumbing, and that’s really all it is. It’s that simple. Out there, you have really good scientists and researchers working very hard. Why not try to cross-pollinate where we see two trusts trying to do the same thing? We can provide some standardised tooling, and set the foundation lower so that they don’t have to start from square one. The conversation we want to have is about how we can help them collaborate so that they can work faster and do their jobs more easily.”
Moving away from an IT infrastructure and the distractions of security is a key element of this strategy. Patterson points out that it is incumbent on cloud service providers to be completely up to date and fully compliant with data protection standards, or their business dies. “We spend much more just on the security of the cloud than any individual trust will invest in in its own technology,” he says.
Instead, health sector stakeholders should focus on building the skills sets that they will need to participate in a world of policies that are driven by data, rather than technology itself.
“What they are looking for is something that leapfrogs beyond the next phase, so they don’t have to repeat themselves,” says Patterson. “Certainly, if you look at several trusts doing the same thing, they are learning as they go, but they are not all learning together. There’s no joining up, no big library of knowledge that can be applied to a new project. They are all working in their own sets, with their own funding, for their own purposes. But pooling resources would help with the development of new skills.”
Even Artificial Intelligence (AI) – constantly hailed by the media as the great hope for the advancement of personalised healthcare – is in danger of being oversold unless collaborative models become the norm. AI tools still need to be fed a lot of information in order to analyse and return meaningful results – and that is where the skills gap will have the biggest impact unless healthcare institutions of every kind focus their technology uptake on a data-centric future, with the cloud taking the computing strain.
“The world is not just about knowledge anymore,” says Rossi. “It’s about how you consume it, analyse it and act upon the data. So to capitalise on this across the healthcare sector, we will need people with the skills to understand and analyse the data.”
By putting their faith in the cloud once and for all, trusts, scientists and researchers, healthcare charities, clinicians – and patients themselves, for they are ultimately the owners of the data – can be liberated from the ties of technology as a panacea, and set their sights on maximizing the value of the data itself.