Is computer modelling the way forward to improve NHS performance?

Computer modelling key to an efficient NHS report says

Computer modelling can increase the efficiency of NHS services, improve care and cut costs, a group of academics say in a new report.

In a pilot study, the researchers - working under the Cumberland Initiative dedicated to improving healthcare services through engineering and maths - ran a computer simulation to figure out how to reduce ambulance queues at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth.

The results were impressive: the queues were cut by 96 per cent and the number of patients triaged within 15 minutes doubled.

"Modelling is the difference between being surprised and being prepared,” said Cumberland Initiative’s co-founder Terry Young, professor of Healthcare Systems at Brunel University.

"It would transform the quality of care, the cost of care, the sustainability of care and the dialogue with patients and could even spawn whole new sectors of our economy."

The approach could extend far beyond the speeding up of admissions.

In a study carried out in Northern Ireland, the researchers found that a nurse could treat children for constipation and soiling problems more efficiently and cheaply than a consultant. While the nurse-led service cost £85.50 per patient, the consultant-led treatment came at five times the price.

The Cumberland Initiative believes that in England alone up to 20 per cent of the NHS budget could be saved over five years if the new approaches tested and fine-tuned using computer modelling were implemented.

Computer modelling, the initiative believes, could prove invaluable as it allows the trialling of new and sometimes radical ideas without putting patient’s lives and wellbeing at risk.

The scenarios tested could be changed and adjusted multiple times without substantially increasing cost.

The Cumberland Initiative was set up by a group of academics in 2010 with the aim of transforming the quality and cost of NHS care delivery through simulation and modelling.

"From text messages to satnav, our lives are now driven by predictions and estimates,” Professor Young commented. “So this outlook should be no different for healthcare. What if there were a satnav for A&E predicting likely patient numbers four hours ahead? This makes a lot of sense."

The engineers and mathematicians working under the initiative focus on close cooperation with healthcare professionals.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in south Wales, for example, has a group of maths modellers embedded in its hospitals in a collaboration with Cardiff University School of Mathematics.

Any member of healthcare staff can suggest a service to be reorganised more effectively through modelling, with 25 projects completed already.

"The modellers collect data, observe how the service currently operates and talk to staff and patients,” said Professor Paul Harper, of Cardiff University School of Mathematics.

"Then they mimic the patient flows through the service using mathematical and computational methods and work out how to run it more efficiently and effectively to help reduce queues and improve patient outcomes."

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