A paradigm shift in the way digital healthcare views big data?

Posted on 14 May 2015 (Permalink)

In recent months I have been lucky enough to present the latest research from Breaking Free Group’s research programme at a number of prestigious conferences, not least University College London Centre for Behaviour Change’s “Harnessing Digital Technology for Health Behaviour Change” conference in February.  I also demonstrated our online treatment programme for drug and alcohol misuse at the WMAHSN stakeholder event at Droitwich on 28 April.

A word of introduction first for those that might not have heard of Breaking Free Group, since only recently have we joined the network.  A business headquartered at Innovation Birmingham Campus, with another office in central Manchester, we are a young digital healthcare business which has developed a psychology based digitally delivered treatment intervention tackling problem substance misuse (at this stage focused exclusively on drug and alcohol addiction).  Now working with more than 60 Local Authorities and NHS Trusts across England, Scotland and Wales, we have also launched in the last few months the world’s first online healthcare intervention in prisons in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and NHS England.  Whilst still a small team, we are perhaps a rarity in this fledgling sector in that our turnover continues to grow, we have just moved into profitability and more than a quarter of our team are focused on research.   We have also just started to win some awards, most recently as one of UKTI’s ‘Great Faces of British Business’ competition.

My part in Breaking Free Group’s work is to head our research activity, drawing on my own scientific background, to work with academic colleagues from a number of universities, which to date including notable names from KCL, Keele and most recently from across the Atlantic. Along with my in-house team, we are currently working hard to further develop the evidence-base for our online treatment programme, using the published Medical Research Council guidelines around developing and evaluating complex interventions (if you’d like a copy of any of our research papers then please feel free to browse a summary at www.breakingfreegroup.com or ask me for information more at selison@breakingfreegroup.com).

Back to my topic though!  If one word could be used to sum up the focus of the research conferences that I have recently attended, that word would be ‘change’. This (new) sector is changing the ways in which professionals from diverse disciplines work together, with CBC Director Susan Michie stating for example on the first day of the UCL conference that ‘multi-disciplinary’ working is no longer sufficient. Truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ working, with co-operative, synergistic collaborative ventures across diverse disciplines is extending the sector to meet the complex healthcare needs of a rapidly increasing global population. These new technologies are also changing how patients and service users access healthcare, through improving access to information and opening up opportunities for ownership and empowerment. Indeed, the conference demonstrated that patients and service users are vital stakeholders in the co-production of digital healthcare interventions.

These recent conferences have also demonstrated that digital health innovations are changing how we conduct research into the effectiveness of healthcare interventions. The older, formative research methods are rapidly being revealed to be lacking by the digital health community, and I have seen many examples of innovative approaches to research and data analysis being presented, which is hugely exciting as someone who is part of a business seeking to break new frontiers.  Most interestingly to me, with a series of papers in preparation on the topic itself, management of data seems to be becoming an increasingly important focus of study due to the enormous amounts of data that digital health interventions generate, the so-called, ‘big data’ output.

The phrase ‘paradigm shift’, first popularised by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ may sometimes be overused in research circles.  Certainly when I moved over three years ago from academia to Breaking Free, I couldn’t have foreseen how quickly this new shift would occur, but to apply the phrase to what is currently going on in the healthcare sector certainly wouldn’t be overstating the case. Which if you love data, science and analysis like I do, and you work in a business with a clear vision to continue building its evidence base is a hugely exciting place to be.

I don’t know about you, but I feel that we, as part of the WMAHSN, are members of an exciting, emerging, and increasingly important new sector that is set to contribute to major social change in the coming decades.  I would welcome the opportunity to talk to any of you about our work, and I look forward to learning from you all too at Droitwich and beyond.

Dr Sarah Elison BSc (Hons), MSc, MPhil, PhD, C.Psychol., Head of Research, Breaking Free Group