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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: NHSBT CDO Aaron Powell on testing analytics with IBM Watson

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) looks after blood donation services in England and transplant services across the UK. This includes managing the donation, storage and transplantation of blood, organs, tissues, bone marrow and stem cells, as well as researching new treatments and processes.

The organisation strives to maintain or improve on the quality of services it provides to patients and donors – and has looked to technology and digital services to help them to do this. Back in 2015, the organisation promoted its interim director of ICT, Aaron Powell to chief digital officer, symbolising a change in the way NHSBT wanted to focus on technology. By making Powell part of the C-Suite, his team were empowered in bringing digital services to the organisation.

Over the last 12 months, NHSBT has been focusing on two key areas: carrying out a complete refresh of its core applications, and exploring the potential of big data analytics.

“A lot of the apps we currently use are bespoke apps that were developed for us a number of years ago and we’re moving to off-the-shelf apps that are configured for us and customised instead, so that we can make use of industry standard functionality and capability and best practice processes when possible,” Powell tells NS Tech.

The switch from bespoke apps coincides with a push to use cloud-based software and services. Powell explains that an architectural framework his team has put together prioritises the likes of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) over on-premise alternatives.

Powell explains that using cloud enables NHSBT to focus on the customisation aspect of those technologies rather than the inner-wiring of the software itself. “We want to focus on the value-add of the software rather than the nuts and bolts”.

One of the services that it has shifted onto the cloud is its allocation schemes – using IBM Business Process Management (BPM).

”In November last year we implemented a new allocation scheme, which is the first time anywhere in the world an organisation has used a cloud-based solution for organ allocation”.

NHSBT has since extended this to take on lung allocation and it is now developing a new liver allocation scheme using the IBM BPM product.

Exploring analytics

NHSBT has also been testing various analytics products to see if they can help the organisation to improve the delivery of services.

“We’re coming at it from a questioning position; we’re not assuming that analytics is automatically going to provide us with a lot of insight – but we recognise that with the amount of data we have, there is a chance that it can give us some insight into how we can operate and do things better,” Powell explains.

The public body has listed 12 big data components, and has started working with different providers, with a low level of investment to test the waters to begin with as it seeks to find out if there is value in using analytics.

The organisation is looking at whether it can take its general attendance data for blood donors and map that to other publicly available data – things like the weather or events happening in local areas – to see if there is a correlation between people not attending and specific variants.

By having a more reliable and accurate prediction of attendees, NHSBT can better prepare resources.

“It might allow us to have a more flexible approach to the people who do not attend, removing bottlenecks which make us more efficient,” suggests Powell.

NHSBT is also looking at whether data analytics capabilities could allow it to give a more accurate prediction of the length of time someone may have to wait for an organ transplant – again looking at a number of factors such as blood type, size and clinical outcomes.

“Our allocation schemes are based in general on what has happened on the waiting list over the last five years or so. Now we’re thinking about whether we can use the allocation list as it is today rather than going backwards,” Powell states.

NHSBT invited a number of big data analytics suppliers and partners to come in to explain what they do and how their technology could help the organisation. It then asked several companies to submit proposals for how they think their technology would support several specific ideas.

It is now working with IBM to see if it can tap into the AI capabilities of Watson, and working with Microsoft partner Altius to explore the benefits of Microsoft Azure analytics. It is also working with French IT services company Atos around some of the transplant and allocation questions that it has.

So, is Powell impressed with IBM Watson so far?

“It’s a powerful capability – but like most data analytics capabilities, the value of it is in the nature of the question you put in. We have to think really carefully about the questions we want to ask in order to get a meaningful result from the product – you can’t just put data in and expect to find something useful automatically,” he says.

NHSBT also had conversations with Google DeepMind but decided not to request a submission from the company.

“DeepMind is focused on where they might be able to use data for therapeutic interventions; we’re more about matching, allocation and encouraging donation. We don’t generally treat patients, we work with donors and then provide services to hospitals – so we’re probably not quite right for DeepMind,” Powell states.

And this is the only reason DeepMind wasn’t considered – despite a backlash from privacy campaigners, Powell believes that the company has positive motives.

“From the interactions I’ve had, the guys at DeepMind want to generally benefit the NHS for the good – their ambition is a good one. There are questions about blanket hoovering up of data from whole organisations as a mechanism for doing good and it is up to us how we are responsible for patient data that we understand the implications of how it is going to be used and we treat it wisely,” he says.

Digital development

NHSBT is about to launch a refresh of its digital manifesto, which will look at what the organisation is meant to do from a donor and patient engagement perspective over the next three years. This will build on the work that it has already done in building a donor portal.

“The portal is used by over a million donors to generate appointments and we’re going to extend that to enable us to catch more information before people come to give blood, even allowing people to defer themselves rather than coming to sessions and then discovering that they can’t give blood. Overall we can reduce a lot of administrative overhead costs,” he says.