By searching through past blood test results, researchers hope it will be possible to identify people with liver disease even if they have no symptoms
“Liver disease is often symptom-free and many of those who die from it don’t see a doctor until it’s too late for treatment. One-off blood tests don’t help because clinicians need to look at blood test results over time. And existing healthcare IT systems weren’t built to help doctors identify those suffering from conditions like liver disease in this way." Dr Tim Jobson, consultant, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust
A new research project will aim to identify people with liver disease using a search engine.
The Predictive Health Intelligence (PHI) team is a partnership between Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Tim Jobson, a consultant and liver specialist at the trust, and health information and IT expert Neil Stevens.
The PHI team has developed a search engine called HepatoSIGHT that will enable GPs and clinicians to identify people who may be at risk, even though they are not showing any symptoms. They say that it is simple to use, requiring no manuals and no training, but has the potential to prevent thousands of premature deaths each year.
The research project, which is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, will use the search engine to go through the the blood test results of patients going back several years and see if they might benefit from further investigation. It expects to identify 10 people who might fall into this category.
Patients’ privacy will be protected. The only pieces of information used by the case-finding database are the individual’s NHS number, date of birth and blood test results which are relevant in the diagnosis of chronic liver disease. No other personal health information is used. Before any data is shared, the specialist data team at Somerset Foundation Trust removes all other information.
Dr Tim Jobson, consultant at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Liver disease places a huge burden on the health of the nation with one in nine people in the UK suffering from the condition. It accounts for 26,000 premature deaths and 100,000 years of lost life each year. In recent years, the cost to the NHS was £6 billion annually – which counted for five per cent of its budget.
“Liver disease is often symptom-free and many of those who die from it don’t see a doctor until it’s too late for treatment. One-off blood tests don’t help because clinicians need to look at blood test results over time. And existing healthcare IT systems weren’t built to help doctors identify those suffering from conditions like liver disease in this way.
“This does not necessarily mean that the patient is ill, but that by looking at their historic blood tests they fall into a category where they are more likely to develop an illness in the years ahead. It is similar to the screening programmes we see for breast or bowel cancer: the trick is to find people before they are ill.”
Dr Mike Walburn, Somerset FT’s site director for Musgrove Park Hospital, added: “This project demonstrates an innovative approach to improving patient care, quality of life and adding years to life. In addition, it has potential to massively reduce the cost of healthcare delivery by diagnosing and treating liver disease far earlier than previously possible.”
It’s exciting to see innovation like this coming from inside the NHS. This week, the health and social care secretary Sajid Javid, once again restated the importance of using the health service’s rich data to help identify diseases and improve treatments. By developing a simple-to-use search engine that can identify potential liver problems from past blood tests, the Predictive Health Intelligence team is demonstrating exactly the kind of approach that could both save patients’ lives and reduce the heavy costs associated with treating liver disease.