Last month, in his final Budget before the General Election, the Chancellor George Osborne announced a £20 million grant for the Northern Health Science Alliance Ltd (NHSA) to establish the first phase of the Health North initiative – Connected Health Cities. Here, Dr Hakim Yadi, Chief Executive of the NHSA, discusses the role of the programme in driving digital health innovation in the North of England and across the UK.

Our health and social care systems are at a crossroads and the UK has a range of health challenges which need to be addressed. The poor health of the North, the escalating costs of healthcare and concerns about the quality of care services are all issues facing policymakers. However the UK healthcare environment also has a number of opportunities, including the availability of data at scale and the UK’s technical capability in data science. These challenges coupled with these opportunities have created the conditions for a transformation in health and care, which can be powered by the development of a trillion dollar market in digital health. Data-intensive health and social care is now at a tipping point where the UK can grasp a significant advantage.

But how can we tap into the opportunities presented by the establishment and growth of the digital health market? This is something that the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA), a network of the leading Northern universities, teaching hospitals, Trusts and Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), has been working hard to capitalise on in order to address the important health challenges facing the UK. The NHSA believes that the North can act as a successful test bed site for the UK, utilising our world class scientists as well as our real world patient populations to provide solutions to the challenges facing our health system.

In January this year, the NHSA was tasked by the Government to deliver their “Health North” programme to unlock healthcare innovations in the English regions with the greatest health challenges.  This was followed by the announcement of £20 million for the programme by the Chancellor in his final Budget before the General Election, to establish a scalable pilot network of “Connected Health Cities” across the North, to be run by the NHSA. This scalable network will build on existing partnerships and investments, as well as the North’s thriving digital and life science sectors. The North is currently the home to over 1,000 life science businesses, supports approximately 38,000 high skilled jobs and has a turnover of £10.8 billion underpinned by world leading science and technology. In addition there are over 100,000 students currently enrolled in life sciences programs in the North, and the leading eight Northern universities have produced over 100 publications ranked amongst the global top 1% in areas including Big Data, between 2008-12.

The “Connected Health Cities” will be a world first in civic partnerships sharing existing information to improve health and social care. They will assemble data, experts and technology in secure locations to generate new information that shapes health and social care services to deliver better outcomes for patients and communities by allowing us to follow patients through different services and extract information from many different organisations and databases.

In addition the “Connected Health Cities” will also enable new medical discoveries by working with the national Farr Institute of Health Informatics Research. This collaboration will ensure that the benefits can be rapidly shared across other regions. By replicating emerging research findings across a variety of well understood local populations, the UK will be able to perform more powerful studies than are currently possible with national databases, which lack information about local environments, services and other contextual factors.

For example, lets take Jean, a 49 year old woman with high blood pressure and depression who recently gave up her job to care for her mother who has dementia. Upon visiting her GP Jean’s drug treatment options are explained to her, with her GP tailoring the doses based on genomic profiling. However, the best choice of drug remains uncertain. Under the new “Connected Health Cities” scheme, a research protocol from the project runs over anonymous information and alerts the GP that she has a patient who might want to take part in a trial comparing seemingly equivalent drugs – the GP (but not researchers) can see that patient is Jean. Jean agrees to take part and to give regular feedback to the researchers, including home monitoring of blood pressure and her experiences via a mobile app. At the end of the trial, an alert is sent to Jean and her GP through part of the app she has been using for the trials, which promotes physical activity among carers. Jean is also offered targeted respite from social care workers. As a result, she takes up regular swimming while a care worker sits with her Mum. After a year Jean no longer needs antidepressants and her blood pressure is much better controlled.

Examples such as this demonstrate how “Health North” will work to provide social and economic benefits to the North and the rest of the UK, by acting as the much needed platform for rapid feasibility analysis and recruitment into clinical trials deployed over our 15 million population. The NHSA believes that the “Connected Health Cities” programme will be the catalyst for driving digital health innovation for the rest of the UK from the North of England and enable the UK to position itself as the leader in digital health market.