How Queen’s University researchers use data models to tackle global public health challenges

Modern society depends on effective and functioning public healthcare. This is why headlines about long A&E wait times, hospitals reaching capacity and the emergence of unknown viruses are so worrying.

Data analysis is now crucial to the effectiveness and survival of healthcare systems. If policymakers and healthcare managers understand what the data is telling them about the issues facing health services, they are better able to tackle them.

Queen’s researchers are leading the way in this area of research. They have developed cutting-edge statistical models and data analysis which contribute to the UK’s healthcare management and readiness for epidemics and pandemics.

What causes long waiting times in public healthcare?

In the UK, A&E and NHS treatment waiting times are reaching an all-time high. This issue has a knock-on effect for hospital resources and can lead to negative outcomes for patients.

There is a lack of understanding of the causes of delays in a patient’s journey through the healthcare system. To tackle the issue of delays and long hospital stays, policymakers need to understand the journey of a patient from the day they are admitted to the day they are discharged.

This can range from individual patient attributes such as age and nature of illness, as well as systemic factors like poor resourcing.

How have Queen’s researchers tackled hospital delays?

Queen’s researchers find new ways to analyse the data produced by healthcare systems. This helps to build an understanding of where delays arise and how we can prevent them.

They developed a method to analyse the data that groups patients by the length of their stay in hospital.  This makes it easier to examine individual and systemic factors that affect a patient’s journey through hospital. These factors range from the time of day they enter hospital, their age and medical circumstances to the hospital department in which they receive treatment.

This data analysis has improved the efficiency of hospital care by giving politicians and healthcare managers the tools they need to make policies and allocate resources. It led to a change in shift times in the Ulster Hospital Belfast Emergency Department. This resulted in a 14% reduction in waiting times to under 60 minutes for an additional 10,000 patients in one year.

What are the biggest issues facing global public health?

The world now feels smaller than ever thanks to the speed and ease of modern global travel. This has led to a more dynamic human population and this has obvious implications for the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale.

Modern healthcare systems have to cope with the threat of the spread of new infectious diseases. This is a big threat, as they already face resource issues on a regular basis.

There are gaps in the knowledge of factors that drive the transmission of disease. It is crucial to be able to identify and understand how population movement can lead to the transmission of disease. This would help key stakeholders to develop policies that could contain disease outbreaks.

How have researchers at Queen’s helped tackle global health crises?

The data analysis carried out by Queen’s researchers helps healthcare managers allocate resources to avoid hospital overcrowding. This work is crucial during pandemics and epidemics to ensure hospitals can run effectively and not hit capacity.

Researchers at Queen’s created statistical models to understand disease transmission in a mobile population. They analysed social networks to create a map of interactions. These interactions can then be used to understand what factors can influence the spread of diseases.

During the coronavirus pandemic, scientists discovered early on that asymptomatic people – those who had the virus without symptoms – could cause an increase in cases. However, due to a lack of symptoms, tracking such people would be difficult. Researchers at Queen’s used statistical models to provide an accurate estimate of the number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases in Northern Ireland. This helped policymakers understand and tackle the spread of the virus.

Queen’s research was crucially important to the national response to COVID-19. National and local decisions on the response to the pandemic were based on research from the university. Their work also informed best practice for international travel corridors and travel advice during the pandemic.

Research changes the world. Research saves lives.

Research is crucial in the mission to improve health and wellbeing around the globe. In a modern and mobile world, diseases spread faster than ever. Our public health systems have to deal with the consequences. Researchers at Queen’s play a key role in understanding and providing effective healthcare.

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