Professor Andrew Morris is passionate about how health data can change the world for the better. As the inaugural Director of Health Data Research UK, seconded from his position as Professor of Medicine and Vice Principal of Data Science at the University of Edinburgh, he’s on a mission to convince us that we can transform the lives of patients by connecting care and research.

In his rousing keynote speech at our recent annual conference, Professor Morris explained how the information age has the ability to revolutionise healthcare. We sat down to ask him what we can learn from this emerging area, and what data science can do for the future of rheumatology. 

“Rheumatology is an increasingly data intensive discipline,” says Professor Morris. “I’m convinced that through systematic collaboration merged with data science, the UK could be the leading learning health system for rheumatological diseases.”

Professor Morris’ passion for health data started over 25 years ago when he began working in diabetes. When he moved to the University of Dundee in 1994, they’d already been linking data from patients to make better judgements about care. “It’s what I call journeys of care,” explains Professor Morris. “As we know, especially as we try to manage long-term care of chronic diseases, patients have to engage with multiple parts of the health service, and we’ve been woeful at actually joining up patient journeys.”

At Dundee the team were initially able to join up the journeys of 7,000 people with diabetes by working with general practices, hospitals, clinics and laboratories. 

“From local level data, we then started doing it regionally and then for the last 20 years we’ve run it nationally in Scotland,” says Professor Morris. “We have real-time information on 300,000 people living with diabetes in Scotland for the purpose of delivering quality health care”.

In the early days, the team used the data to help inform them of gaps and risks. Results were astounding. “We managed to reduce amputations as a result of diabetes by 50% and blindness by 40%,” explains Professor Morris. “Then of course the internet came along, and then genomics, and we were able to enable even more data. It’s a very powerful model of how you can harness data to improve lives.”

Professor Morris believes that data science can be the catalyst for change. “My definition of data science is the interface between maths, statistics, computational science and domain. In rheumatology you’ve also got a very rich history of looking at registers, both disease-based registers and therapy-based registers. The question for me is, why can’t we work with every person in the UK living with a rheumatological condition to support their quality of care and to use data science to enable new trials of treatments and new discoveries.” 

During his speech, Professor Morris explained that we’re now living in what is called the fourth industrial revolution; the era of data science. “The rate of change is exponential rather than linear. It affects every type of market in every country, and it’s very disruptive in terms of governance and how markets are led. Imagine how we could improve the health of the 66 million people in the UK if we had highly validated data – that’s the opportunity. But of course with big data comes big responsibility.” 

At Health Data Research UK, Professor Morris and his team have three aims to help lead the way in health data science. “Firstly, it’s all about science and innovation,” explains Professor Morris. “Secondly, we’re training a generation of data scientists, so people who understand rheumatology, for example, but also understand maths, statistics and computational science. And thirdly to build a data infrastructure.”

Professor Morris believes that the key to achieving this is to collaborate effectively. “What we’re keen to do is bring patients together with the NHS and other data controllers together to agree a set of standards, so we’ve created a UK Health Data Research Alliance. You can then build an infrastructure to allow the sharing of data. This then builds an outstanding platform where you can perform innovation, research and ultimately improve care.”

When asked how what the future holds for rheumatology, Professor Morris is clear that the revolution is here and that we need to embrace it. “Other industries have been transformed by data science,” he explains. “The future will involve new tools and methods, whether it’s artificial intelligence, machine learning or robots supporting people living with rheumatological disease. 

“My advice would be to collaborate and think big. This will require a form of collaboration arguably never seen before. My view is that an individual institution can’t do this themselves – whether it’s universities or the NHS. We need to collaborate to create a comprehensive system in a trustworthy way.”

Summing up, Professor Morris recognises there are challenges but is optimistic about what the future holds. “The challenge is how we harness and revolutionise healthcare,” he says. “But in ten years’ time I want the UK to be famous for the way we use health data to improve the lives of everyone.”

Members can watch Professor Morris’ speech from our annual conference on our eLearning website here.