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Making complex data simple - challenges of the Cancer Innovation Challenge!

Fraser MacDonald

26th April 2017

Written by Fraser MacDonald, Project Development Manager at The Data Lab who attended the Information Session for Interested Applicants for the Cancer Innovation Challenge's New approaches to record and integrate cancer PROMs and PREMs funding competition
 

For me, the exciting part of developing an idea is when you’re presented a problem so complex that there is no clear or obvious solution. You need to start thinking laterally and seek collaboration.

As a Project Development Manager for The Data Lab it is quite unusual for me to attend information days. Usually, I am presented with an already well-developed idea, and I work with the partners to design a suitable structure to ensure delivery. In this instance, I was called in last minute (courtesy of my colleague’s persistent cold!) and asked to represent The Data Lab.

I must admit that, upon arriving, the only knowledge I had of the Cancer Innovation Challenge were the general updates from my colleague Steph, the challenge’s manager. It wasn’t until I listened to the excellent panel of speakers that I fully understood and appreciated the intricacy and scale of the challenge itself.

Dr Penny Wright, Associate Professor in Psychosocial Cancer Care at LICAP, did an excellent job of highlighting the challenges that face applicants. LICAP has been working on a similar issue for NHS England and NHS England and Wales and Dr Wright used her 20 years’ experience to provide valuable insight. For me, the prominent learning was that integration of any new tool must take into account the need for staff resource during implementation, as any additional burden (i.e. training) will require serious consideration for an NHS trust.

When it comes to data collection, NHS Scotland is widely regarded as one of the most forward thinking health services. For the data scientist, this provides an excellent landscape to build truly innovative health solutions. Dr Julie Falconer, Enterprise Architect for the Scottish Governments eHealth platform, gave a fantastic overview of the range of systems that currently exist within Scotland’s public sector. Talking through the newly named Integrated Digital Health and Social Care Strategy, it was evident that the Scottish Government are open to collaboration. They want to ensure that the eHealth platform is future proofed by providing space to innovate and ‘plug in’ new tools. It became apparent to me that simplicity is at the centre of the new strategy. A simple user interface with one login, leading to user specific plugins. Paraphrasing Dr Falconer’s analogy, the new system will act as ‘a coat hook for developers to hang their coats’. Of course, this presents another challenge; the ‘hook’ is still in development!

Prof Brian McKinstry, Professor of Primary Care E-Health at the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics made a great point; any outcome must take into account the needs of both clinical staff and patients. Health professionals are busy. The last thing they need is a needlessly complicated user interface. Naturally, the same applies to the patient.

Prof McKinstry’s point reminded me of a quote from Hilary Mason, American data scientist and founder of the incredible Fast Forward Labs. Hilary was keynote speaker at Data Summit, one of 26 events supported during The Data Labs inaugural DataFest 2017. While providing insight into the upcoming data technologies, Hilary stated - “The real impact will be in making complex data simple”.

To me, this is the key to a successful project. Making something so complex appear simple to both clinical experts and patients will require true ingenuity and, importantly, close collaboration with those in the know (i.e. Clinical experts and patients!). Phase 1 of the call asks for technical feasibility studies. As a project development manager, I would think that it is fundamental for phase 1 proposals to illustrate a clear methodology for identifying the needs of all end-users.

The NHS is an immense hive of multi-level management, and the number of systems and processes is mind-boggling. Listening to the ideology and aspiration behind the Cancer Innovation Challenge, it struck me that the real innovation will not necessarily be the way data is analysed, but how one integrates a practical and simple solution into a multi-layered system. A system that so many people interact with daily and rely on continually.

However, regardless of these challenges, cancer is a huge problem. If there is an opportunity to improve the welfare of those affected then it is a problem worthy of an innovative solution. I for one am very excited to see what is proposed!

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