Publication Digital Health and Care 26 February, 2020

Manufacturing the future: Could healthcare data help rebalance the UK’s economy?

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This Reform Perspectives argues how the forthcoming Budget represents a critical opportunity to unleash the potential of the UK’s unique healthcare data asset, whilst increasing the health and wealth of the whole nation.

This essay is the fruit of a collaboration between Future Care Capital and Reform

The price of the status quo

The NHS ‘holds millions of electronic medical records on the health of the population from birth to death’ and extensive administrative datasets.

Yet there is currently no systematic way to understand what the demand for this data from third parties looks like. Research by Future Care Capital found that there are geographical disparities in the demand for such data as well as differing interest in datasets controlled by primary, secondary and community health and care Trusts.

Understanding the demand for different types of healthcare data is crucial in understanding what fuels data-driven innovation.

International context

The UK Government must take heed of what its international counterparts are doing in artificial intelligence (AI) and Life Sciences sectors when formulating future plans.

Countries like China and India have prioritised harnessing big data in healthcare. By building huge regional data centres and investing significant funds, large data labelling companies work to clean, annotate and curate data.

They are taking advantage of the fact that data is not constrained by geography and can be accessed remotely or moved around. Companies have set up in the most deprived provinces, where they often also benefit from government subsidies and other incentives – some of which are not dissimilar to those which have underpinned Enterprise Zones in the UK since 2012.

‘An AI assembly line’

AI is reliant upon high-quality data which is correctly labelled and helpfully structured. Data clean-up, annotation and curation remains relatively labour-intensive and takes skill and knowledge of the context in which it was collected.

However, if the process can be likened to manufacturing, are there parts of the medical data curation conveyor belt that could be delegated to people with no prior knowledge of healthcare but who could be progressively upskilled? Both China’s and India’s data labelling industry focused on relatively simple labelling tasks, but they are now moving into the clean-up and curation of much more complex types of data including medical images.

Lessons for the UK

Investment in R&D, new technologies and industries could be used as a stimulus to revitalise ‘left-behind’ local economies and regions.

The UK’s current life sciences innovation supply chain shows a concentration of ‘excellence’ centres, rather than a place-based approach which would benefit the locations that the Government has pledged to ‘level-up’.

In order for Government to use investment in R&D and healthcare data to ‘level-up’ these economies, they need to consider 4 key points: physical infrastructure, workforce skills, capital investment and safeguards for individual rights and regulation.

This piece argues that investment should flow from the Treasury toward left-behind communities, forging strong links between them and existing centres of excellence to help rebalance the UK economy. That could be a game-changing legacy for the new Government.

Reform Perspectives are designed to inject new and bold policy thinking into the debate about public policy.