Meet our featured member for January… Ronan O’Leary

Ronan O’Leary is a consultant in neurosciences and trauma intensive care medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and a Member of the Faculty. We had a chat with Ronan about his career in informatics and what’s happening at the University of Cambridge Healthcare Data Programme.

Please can you introduce yourself and explain what your current role is?

I am Ronan O’Leary, a consultant in neurosciences and trauma intensive care medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. I am also course director for the University of Cambridge Healthcare Data Programme.

As a member of the Faculty, could you tell us how you found out about the Faculty, what your expectations were when you joined, and how you think the Faculty can influence the informatics landscape?

I found out about the Faculty through colleagues at work as we were developing the Healthcare Data programme. My expectations for myself were modest really; I wanted to try to build a wider network around what we were doing in Cambridge, and perhaps selfishly I wanted access to a group of people who might be interested in applying to the programme or may pass on details to people who were.

It is now clear that the Faculty has an enormously important role in developing a culture of better understanding, governance, and utilisation of patient level data throughout the health and care sector.

Part of this will come through developing standards and the wider aspects of professionalisation of the health data sciences, but a key component is influencing the training of doctors and other health professionals. For example, my own college examinations are more likely to include questions about a bimetallic strip in the measurement of theatre temperature than anything demonstrating understanding of health data.

Developing the skills for effective use of patient level data within health professions training is crucial for the evolution of health and care in the UK.

How did you begin your career in informatics and how did you get involved working in healthcare data?

I am very much an interloper. I don’t have any great informatics skills and, like many people working in the NHS at the moment, I am aware that data offers enormous potential to improve how we work and care for patients, but I am continually frustrated with both my own lack of ability and an awareness that the tools and systems to extract and use patient level data are still in the early stages of development across the wider NHS.

I am very lucky, however, that I work somewhere where there are abundantly talented people in this space, people like Afzal Chaudhry, our Director of Digital, and one of my neurocritical care consultant colleagues Ari Ercole, a NHS Topol Digital Fellow, who have shaped a lot of my thinking.

Around two years ago the Office for Students released funding call for the development of courses to support the UK Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. The objective was the development of training which would fill skills gaps that were hampering growth in the UK. In response this programme was developed jointly by Cambridge University Health Partners and the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge.

We have built a collaboration between the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the Cambridge Business School, The Clinical School of Medicine, the Department of Engineering, the European Bioinformatics Institute, and Cambridge University Hospitals. The aim is a programme which takes people who were working in healthcare data rich environments and teach three broad concepts within health and social care data: the value of data as it relates to individuals and populations, the complexity of the legislative, regulatory, and ethical framework, and the process to turn data into effective change.

As well as modules on the more usual informatics topics, we have included teaching on data visualisation and design, systems engineering and change, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

The entrepreneurship module is something we are particularly proud of because we feel that it provides a unique context to illustrating the value of data. Naturally, we don’t expect everyone who does the course to be interested in setting up a company and going on Dragon’s Den, but we do hope that by framing a value around data it will allow all of our graduates to think about the importance of what data holds – stories about patients, their lives, and their illnesses, and how that value may be used respectfully.

Relevant training and programmes are vital for the development of clinical informatics as a profession. How do you think universities such as Cambridge can improve knowledge of informatics throughout health and social care?

In many respects we are very lucky at Cambridge, it is a well-resourced academic environment with an abundance of skills and knowledge from a variety of fields related to health informatics. It has been relatively straightforward to develop our programme. The same would be true of most universities in the UK.

The real challenge, in my view, is how we ritualise learning in health data sciences throughout the health and care sector. Some of this needs to be supported by universities but limiting training to academic environments will be a mistake. We need a variety of levels of expertise where we have mixed skill sets within each clinical environment to allow data driven quality, research, and commercial activity to thrive.

Programmes like ours are part of the solution, but a lot more activity is needed and much of it should be targeted at undergraduates and the health professions in training.

What informatics developments would you like to see, or are you working on currently?

If I could suddenly change one thing where I worked it would be to have a mature, effective, and slick data extraction and analytics service which was useably connected to the clinical space and professions.

What is your main passion within clinical informatics and why?

To use data effectively and meaningfully. Put another way, I hope that I am contributing to a process which allows the local experts in our programme to advance our collective skill level to allow us to ask interesting, useful questions about the care we provide and for our data to answer, visualise, and contextualise the questions in a way which improves care.

Lastly, what advice would you give to yourself back when you were first embarking on a career in informatics?

To work out a solution at the organisational level and get some money to deliver it. Everything after that will be relatively straightforward.

I spent a long time being frustrated at my lack of skills and watching YouTube videos on R. Once I realised that the use of health and care data needed much more structure than I could stumble through on my own it became obvious that we needed a comprehensive, accessible programme in Cambridge which put health and care data in to its social, health, and economic contexts. From here teaching how to extract and use data could allow anyone with the an interest to develop the tools to use data effectively.

There are always great people who want to share their knowledge in this space.