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Huge potential for use of big data to improve ambulance services, report finds

King’s College London report says government should explore value of big data, and calls for London ambulance services to partner with TfL to navigate traffic ‘more intelligently’

Data from outside the NHS, such as information on weather and traffic conditions, could be vital to improving ambulance services, a report has found.

The report by researchers at King’s College London said the government should do more to explore how data could help ambulances increase efficiencies, improve response times and help patients quicker.  

Focusing specifically on London, the report said the London Ambulance Service (LAS) and government should partner with Transport for London (TfL) to get near real-time traffic data to allow them to navigate traffic better.  

“Even with blue lights and sirens, and even taking into account LAS’s use of bicycle and motorbike units, ambulances can find it difficult to get through London’s congested streets to emergency incidents,” the report said.

TfL data could help the routing engine of the ambulance service’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) programme to make better decisions on how long it will take the nearest available ambulances to reach an incident, and make a recommendation, it said.

“It could also give route recommendation and guidance by the LAS on-vehicle mobile data terminals to support drivers in finding the fastest route,” the report said. “Thirdly, there are potential uses of the TfL dynamic traffic light control system.”

Giving ambulances access to mobile network data would also help them make better decisions. The report authors said there is “scope” for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to use its regulatory powers to allow ambulances access to the data.  

“Knowing where people actually are in the city (as opposed to where they are assumed to be) can help anticipate calls and ensure coverage,” the report said.

Weather and pollution data

The report also encourages engagement with the London Air Quality Network to “help predict demand for ambulance services for those with breathing problem”.

“People in London with breathing conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder [COPD], are particularly vulnerable to heightened air pollution; and when they experience difficulty in breathing, they often call an ambulance,” the report said.

“Improved strategic intelligence for evidence-based improvement of LAS dispatch using air pollution data is a complex and technically challenging business.”

It also said the LAS should challenge researchers to come up with a way to facilitate access and use of weather data.

The NHS already uses weather data to do forward planning for winter pressures, or during heat waves, but researchers could “generate further impactful research on weather and dispatch, including specific recommendations for further process improvements including to weather-related communications initiatives,” the report said.

Lead author of the report and research associate at King’s policy institute, Archie Drake, said the staff at the LAS “are heroes”, and that there are several ways they can get increasing support.

“What we’ve found here is that there are various practical ways for system leaders and politicians to support them with new technology,” Drake said.

“It’s no longer enough just to set targets. Another key factor for better performance is more attention and investment in what information staff have at hand to make good decisions.”

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