The value of patient data can be harnessed in new and innovative ways using data-driven technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). There's a lot of hype around these technologies but also some real potential to transform healthcare and research.

Rapid advances in data science are creating a great deal of interest in the health sector, because it is thought that there is enormous potential to apply these techniques and technologies to transform patient health and the health system in the coming years.  

Such technologies include machine learning, image recognition, natural language processing and text mining. Patient data can be used to 'train' software to identify or recognise certain patterns more efficiently, quickly and effectively than humans can, which results in a wide range and scale of applied uses.

Mapping new digital technologies

We scoped out some of the new technologies that make use of patient data in their development and applications in healthcare and research, to identify where data-driven innovations are already being introduced. This slide deck shows different types of uses and impacts of new technologies.

The Royal Society has also produced some excellent general resources on machine learning and how it can be used.


New technologies could bring benefits right across the spectrum:

  • For patients – to deliver better care and treatment; and increase self-empowerment to manage health conditions
  • For clinicians and the health service – to create a more efficient, effective and manageable system
  • For policymakers – to enable better decisions about health funding and public health
  • For researchers – to facilitate greater understanding of disease causes and treatments
  • For industry – to develop and hone products and services for the life sciences and health research sector; speeding up drug discovery and repurposing; and to ensure drug safety and efficacy

But it's really important to consider the ethics and regulatory issues, to ensure these benefits can be realised in a responsible way.

Future technologies and the use of patient data workshop

Conversations about new technologies within the NHS and the health research sector are happening at every level, but are frequently not joined up. This means different areas or hospitals may put in place different rules or requirements around using data, which makes it difficult to scale up ideas that work, or provide a clear picture to the public.

To try and address some of these issues, in June 2017 we brought together healthcare professionals, policymakers, industry and academics to hear each other's views and learn from other sectors. We wanted to understand what people collecting, controlling and using data do in the first instance - which is why we didn't include patient representatives at this initial stage (but we will be talking to patients next).

We aimed to share perspectives and collectively think through some practical solutions for working together. The aims were:

  1. To help understand the opportunities and benefits of these technologies using patient data
  2. To collectively think through some of the challenges to realising this potential. This included:
    • learning from other sectors that are also grappling with fast-moving technologies, such as autonomous vehicles;
    • considering some of the longer term social and ethical implications of using patient data in innovative ways.

You can read more about the meeting here.