NHS IT is really rather bad. This is one of those undeniable facts of life that junior doctors swiftly realise on starting work, generally around the time that they are confronted with the need to send their first fax ever. Yes, you read that right, oh residents of the year 2018. We are still using fax machines to send information from one place to the other.
If we’re not keeping archaic tech alive, we have historically tended to build systems on top of systems, with the new not quite replacing the functionality of the old. We’re slow to adopt, bad at spreading good practice and quite frankly terrible at sorting it all out, and I think we’ve hit the mindset that it’ll never get better, so we had better just get on with it.
Happily, some years ago some smart people decided to mash together (in the nicest possible way) healthcare geeks and technology geeks, and let them have a giant geekfest weekend with the aim of sharing ideas and expertise, and perhaps maybe building something together to make everyone’s lives just that little bit better. They called it the NHS Hack Day, and last weekend saw the 19th of these taking place in Cardiff, and along I went.
I’d actually signed up once before, but being worried about my complete lack of skill when it comes to making computers do fancy things, I’d bottled out at the last minute. A year later, I find myself in various meetings with the encouraging and effusive Anne-Marie, who told me not to worry about that and come along anyway. I decided to take my camera along so if I got bored of watching people write code, I could take photos. At the last minute I also threw my laptop in, on the basis that I could also edit the photos if I got *really* bored and that someone might need something photoshopping.
Hack days follow a general format; people present pitches detailing their problems, then there’s a general milling about phase where you discuss what you might do with the projects, then some sort of magic happens, groups form and you start working on something that interests you.
There were around 20 initial pitches this year, with people seeking input on solving problems such as improving how clinicans monitor type 1 diabetic patients, keeping an eye on lymphodema symptoms and using virtual reality in training and consultations.
Two pitches really caught my eye; the first was from the Carmarthenshire People First group, who with the support of Barod CIC presented an excellent case for digitalising the health passport; a form containing basic information about a healthcare user that provides essential information on their conditions, likes and dislikes and lifestyle. The second waved the possibility of playing with a data set looking at service availability in front of me, and my inner geek cheered up. This was something I could potentially contribute to.
After a bit of a chat about exactly what data there was, the realisation that perhaps instead of just taking photos I could maybe only use my rather shaky tableau skills to do some visualisations, I settled down with Matt, Mark, Fergus, Ben and Tim to work through our problem and see what we could find in the data.
The answer was unfortunately a lot of holes. But 36 hours, two blinky maps, a couple of radial charts, a staggeringly beautiful and complex Voroni plot and a bit of a lashed up geographical model later ( I had a 4am revelation that I could use the skills that the lovely ABCi team had painstakingly taught me a couple of weeks ago to demonstrate the impact on patients of making a site unavailable and then spent two hours on Sunday morning generating 500 random postcodes to build it with…), we had the beginning of some potential uses and a lot more questions about what we could do next.
Other teams had some really impressive outputs. The Calmo VR team in particular went from an idea to a fully functioning app and a very slick presentation with a plan for patient testing in less than 48 hours!
But although we didn’t have a beautiful product at the end of it, we definitely stretched ourselves. I certainly learned more about tableau (particularly around what it *won’t* do) in those two days than in the last three months of casual use, and really got to grips with producing a geographical model from absolute scratch. There were people on our team doing things in a programming language they had only decided to learn a day ago. There was a glorious rubber duck debug that made something that seemed horribly complex suddenly simple. We discovered how to chop postcodes, convert latitudes, create a giant CSV file and the collective swearing at trying to get the blinky maps to display properly in the final presentation was definitely a group bonding experience.
I think we all came away with something new, even if it was the conviction that we’d be signing up for the next one as soon as possible and that maybe we can make healthcare technology better.
All photos by Sara Long. Even more photos available on Flickr with a cc licence for all your blogging and charitable needs; please attribute and no commercial use or derivatives without express permission, thank you.