Feature Content, Interview

Interview Series: Jon Payne of InterSystems talks data strategy

As we’ve launched our new Integrated Care Systems (ICS) channel, which is dedicated to bringing you the latest ICS news and content, there’s set to be plenty of focus on data strategies, as organisations seek to glean insights from their vast repositories of combined information.

With this in mind, HTN took time out to chat to Jon Payne, Manager of Sales, Engineering and Education at InterSystems, to get an industry perspective on the challenges and opportunities around data strategy…

Hi Jon – why is it important for organisations to have a data strategy?

Generally, a data strategy is all about encapsulating an organisation’s attitude to data – the way it wants to collect, store, consume, process and leverage information. Data is of no benefit if you can’t derive useful information from it and then act on it.

From my perspective, the goal of a data strategy is to be able to ensure that your organisation gets to a point where it can act based on information. All the things that go along with that – in terms of robustly and securely capturing data, storing it and serving it up in support of operational work – are all required to enable a data strategy.

The aim of the increasingly information-orientated economy that we live in is to be able to act in a much timelier way. We’ve seen with COVID that the use of data has enabled a much more rapid response to changing circumstances, and we’ve seen that in other industries as well. Those organisations which best understand and leverage the information that’s flowing through them, are better able to respond and adapt and, generally, operate in a more efficient and effective manner. This is because they understand more about what’s going on in their organisation and the environments around them.

The sharp edge of this is obviously looking to data to improve care and to improve the delivery of services. There’s also a lot of focus on the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and a lot of people are starting to see the potential benefits of that. In a system with early or streamlined diagnosis of mental health conditions, for example, or in looking at cohorts of patients who have complex conditions to manage, AI can make that diagnosis significantly faster and more accurate, and generally improve people’s health and wellbeing. There are a lot of aspects that are bound up in this idea of a data strategy.

What do organisations need to consider?

The fundamentals of capturing and curating data in a fast and secure manner [is about] ensuring you have appropriate safeguards around data encryption and the use of data. It’s also about permissioned access to that data – who has rights to that and what level of control do we give people over their data.

When you’re looking at clinical data and a health economy, where different labs may do the same tests but different numbers can come out, it can have a major impact on the delivery of care. If a clinician is used to seeing numbers presented in a particular way, and they don’t have time to understand [another way], there’s clinical risk associated with that.

If you move the ownership of data from a clinical setting to a patient setting then there’s major issues around control lineage, authorisation, and authentication associated with that. One of the aspects of the NHS is that it’s incredibly heterogeneous and, therefore, the data that’s flowing through it means you can’t apply a general solution to the problem, you must cope with the differences.

In terms of delivering benefits to the NHS, it comes back to leveraging information better.

How do you see data strategies evolving?

It is not uncommon for it to take 12 years from application research to deployment, and that’s far too long. We need to look at ways to accelerate that and, having a robust data strategy that everyone buys into, can be instrumental in that.

As the way in which we view data evolves, so will the way we manage and control that data. The issues we’ve seen in the past with parts of the NHS saying they are going to create a big data lake of primary care data have not [yet] been particularly successful due to concerns about ownership and privacy, and types of secondary use. The key to addressing that is transparency and communication. Take a step back and there are fundamental issues of trust behind that. That communication must be led by the centre.

Who do you think will take responsibility for these strategies and implementations?

I think the ICSs are ideally positioned to balance this and bridge the gap between the general principles that are set centrally and the environments that you see at a local level.

Being able to exploit data within the context of an ICS is going to be increasingly key. It will break down the barriers between health and care more effectively, to be able to share it and understand it and consume it [data].

There have been many cases where integration or interoperability stops at the glass – you’re giving healthcare professionals access to information, but they’ve got different windows into different types of data and systems. That means sometimes that data doesn’t get used – if you are a professional with two minutes for an appointment then you don’t have time to go looking through five different systems. You need one view of that information.

Tell us about your current work around data strategy

We’ve got some existing customers in the Shared Care Records space, where they’re more actively engaging with the acute trusts in their area and other types of organisations – where previously, they may have been slower to interoperate. Trusts have always been guarded about mental health data because it’s seen as being particularly sensitive. But I think we’re starting to see more work going on now in terms of building a broader health economy.

I think FHIR delivers value because it’s encouraging people to share in a more standardised manner. There are a lot of systems and solutions out there that still have interfaces that are 15 to 20 years old, or the people who have written them have left, and there are all sorts of other issues associated with legacy.

The move to FHIR is helping reinvent those areas but the way in which we’ve seen it being adopted hasn’t been as smooth as it could have been. A lot of that is down to the fact that we have a very heterogenous environment within the UK and NHS – there are different ways of consuming data and different priorities.  As organisations move up the curve of experience, they recognise that they can do this better. I’m encouraged by the fact that there is more engagement now.

Tying back the work that’s going on in the NHS with the international standards organisations assists with adoption by suppliers, vendors, and organisations. It clearly signposts which version to adopt. We’re seeing evolution to a better set of standards – but they’re always a bit of a moveable feast, and they’re always evolving.

What’s the most important advice you would give an organisation about data strategy?

It would be to identify and understand how you want to deploy and use your data – what’s the goal for making better use of it? Then you can use the data strategy to help form and support those goals.

What we have seen in the past is organisations saying, ‘our strategy is this’, but ultimately does that deliver benefits to the organisation? Not really – because their goals aren’t focused on improvements or evolution – it’s just been all about formalising what they do now.

Decide what the vision is and then driving what you do to achieve that, I think, is the most fundamental tenant to having a successful and useful data strategy.

I’m always in favour of analysing a set of problems, so that you can find ways to reduce complexity and keep it simple. Complexity causes all sorts of issues, so if you can analyse your requirements and environment, I think, that delivers significant benefits.

That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of any successful IT architecture and certainly applies to data. We’re trying to distil things down to a simple and more constrained set of requirements and problems – that’s immensely beneficial. Not just firefighting and trying to keep the lights on but [thinking about] what our ambitions are and where we want to be in two, three, five- or 10-years’ time.

There’s been a lot of relatively tactical approaches taken in the past because of budgetary cycles and response to COVID – but in the NHS data strategy there’s quite a lot of vision. To my mind, the challenge is going to be about translating that vision into a practical set of actions to take, which are simple enough to be effective and achievable, in a way which supports a vibrant health economy.