Case study

NHS clinical research body uses QlikView to forward open data

Brian McKenna

The clinical research delivery arm of the NHS is developing an open data platform using QlikView.

Bryony Walsh, project manager at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network, says it was looking for a tool that would dig insight out of NHS research data sets.

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The team looked at Spotfire and Tableau, says Walsh, but chose QlikView because it seemed to be the simplest for creating dashboards.

“Like any public sector organisation we are trying to run at maximum efficiency with reduced budgets. Clinical research is no exception to that," she says.

“The NHS holds the largest repository of data about people’s health in the world. We should be able ask the right questions, identify the right patients for research, and their locations, but in reality we’ve not been able to do that because NHS data is kept in silos."

Simplifying research logistics

The purpose of the QlikView open data platform is to enable people with a stake in clinical research in the NHS to access the data held by the NIHR Clinical Research Network to create an instant picture of what is happening in research that would be useful to them.

The Clinical Research Network is a co-ordinating centre in the middle of the NIHR, says Walsh, and the team developing the QlikView platform comprises one developer, two information managers and a project manager.

“Previously, we had a team of information managers who would produce reports in Excel on a weekly basis, on a Friday, uploading to a portal. Then other information managers would download the reports, create pivot tables, and so on. We discovered we had 55 different systems in place and 35 different ways of collating reports. There was huge duplication of data,” she says.

Walsh says one of the bigger ambitions of the NIHR business intelligence programme is to “close the gap between patients and clinical research”. 

She gives the example of opening up all cancer studies information connected with a particular NHS trust: “A clinician at the bed talking to the patient can consult their iPad and ask if they’d like to take part in a study. Often patients want to participate in studies but don’t know how to get involved.”

Walsh gives another example of how the chief medical officer Sally Davies could use an iPad to identify relevant studies going on when talking to a potential research body whilst abroad. Without this data being opened up and rendered available on a mobile device, that kind of conversation would be slowed down by to-ing and fro-ing on email, she says.

There is also an open app in the pipeline on the NIHR QlikView app centre, she says, which will use Google Maps to enable members of the public to identify, using their post code, where research studies are taking place. That should be available in January or February 2014.  

The NIHR started to engage with QlikTech in October 2012 and the system, which now has 1,700 users, went live in March 2013.

A boost to data quality and visibility

A side benefit, says Walsh, is that it has improved data quality, allowing the NIHR to “instantly see where problems are".

It can also throw up interesting anomalies, such as when one study recruited an unusually large number of participants. The explanation? An advert in Men’s Health magazine recruiting for a study about high-risk behaviours connected to addictions, depression, and personality disorders among young men aged 18-34. Previously that spike would have gone unnoticed in a spreadsheet.

The project is part of the NIHR’s overall business intelligence programme, which turns on exposing data sets, such as a real-time research permissions system and a studies portfolio management system, to people who can use it to carry out or participate in research, and is a response to the government’s data transparency agenda. 

NHS trusts can also benchmark themselves against each other using the apps on the research hub.


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