Health informatics research links electronic health data with other forms of research and sources of data, using technology to improve the health and care of patients and the public.
In the same way that data are created when we use banks, supermarkets or online services, information is collected when we interact with all of the different healthcare services such as visiting your GP, your dentist, visiting a specialist in a hospital or accessing health support in a clinic. This information is kept in one or more databases that contain patient records.
When scientists and researchers want to understand more about the trends in health and illness they use patients’ records to get a clearer overview of how different factors, such as the use of two medicines together or referrals to a particular type of rapid-access clinic, can affect patients. This research does not identify individual patients, instead it provides answers about patients as a whole, healthcare in a specific region or healthcare at a specific time of year.
However, patients’ information is not all kept in one place and so to get the most accurate overview and to have the biggest and most beneficial impact on healthcare services, scientists and researchers link-up the different databases of information to get a comprehensive picture of a population’s health. This is called data linkage.
Data linkage has been a key feature of public health practice throughout the 20th century. Until recently, however, it has been very difficult to do because there was often no that data held in different places could be brought together, other than by painstaking manual processes and deduction.
In the past few years, requirements for medical records to carry codes related to the patient (such as their NHS number), coupled with structured collection of data using computers and agreed terminologies for describing illnesses and treatments, have made record linkage much easier, and this has led to more rapid research, in some cases, resulting in a quicker translation of research findings into healthcare practice.
Despite these advances data linkage processes are still incomplete and inefficient. Improving the collection and transfer of patient data in line with our principles and ethics is one of the key areas of development that The Farr Institute is exploring as part of its research.
Linking records together is the core business of The Farr Institute and our research is aimed at making discoveries and generating informatics methods that improve health and care.
Data linkage is hugely valuable for understanding how different factors are connected, such as smoking and heart disease, or housing quality and asthma. This information can be used to help suggest improvements that can make a difference to the health of a population or to help to reduce inequalities.
Healthcare information can also have lots of other uses. By looking at the data collected through NHS services we are able to investigate whether changes in government policies are having positive or negative effects on health (for example, the smoking ban or changes in state benefits).
The data are also extremely important for monitoring the long-term effects of new drug treatments as well as helping to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and cost of our health services. Analysing patient data can also help to better plan the services that will be offered to the public in the future and can ensure that time, money and staff resources meet the demands of the public and prevent waste.