Turning to digital technology to improve healthcare

Manchester is one of three universities working together in the fast-moving field of digital health, thanks to an international collaboration with a focus on translational research.

From smartphones and watches to web-connected home appliances, technology has never played a greater role in everyday life. Yet there is one area with significant untapped potential for improving the lives of millions: digital health.

Professor Niels Peek

Professor Niels Peek

Niels is Professor of Health Informatics at Manchester, Director of the Christabel Pankhurst Institute, and Co-Director of the International Centre for Translational Digital Health.

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The area is a broad one, and covers developments that we've grown used to in recent years. Online health appointments, apps that track various aspects of our health and ordering repeat prescriptions online are some of the most obvious ways in which we use technology for health-related purposes, but there is much more happening beyond these.

Conducting research across borders

The International Centre for Translational Digital Health is a collaboration between the universities of Manchester, Toronto and Melbourne that is looking to conduct research into several aspects of digital health, with the aim of translating this research into actual patient benefit in the real world.

The establishment of the Centre follows the creation of a strategic alliance between the three institutions in 2021, building on previous collaborations between Manchester and Melbourne and between Manchester and Toronto.

"While results from digital health research are commonly shared across the international academic community, it is rare that experiences with translating this research into patient benefit are shared," Professor Niels Peek, one of the co-leaders of the International Centre for Translational Digital Health.

"The Centre aims to accelerate the translation process by sharing these experiences among its members, and developing tools and methods to streamline the translation process."

The three universities will work on research projects and papers together, exchange students who can learn about digital health research elsewhere in the world, develop new digital health technology, and bid for external funding to keep their research going.

An older woman checking a watch capable of collecting health data.

One of the key advantages of the collaboration is the fact that each of the three cities are similar when it comes to healthcare funding and management, and the respective populations in each location. This means that insights and learnings from each of the cities can be easily transferred to the other cities, reducing the time and effort that is needed to understand what works.

The Centre will focus on three main areas, or hubs, of digital health.

Remote monitoring and virtual care

This hub will look at how smartphones and wearables, such as devices that can monitor your heart rate, can provide data on health and disease patterns. These patterns can then be used by health and care professionals when they make decisions about diagnoses and treatments.

This is a particularly significant area of research for managing chronic disease in particular, as patients with chronic conditions tend to require long-term treatments that need to be managed outside clinical settings.

The new Centre will bring together experts in a number of areas – including engineering, medicine, informatics and more – to help turn research insights into practical solutions.

Health policy and implementation

Researchers in this hub will look at regulations and policies for bringing digital health technology into the Canadian, Australian and UK healthcare systems, as recent developments in technologies haven't yet translated into increased choice for patients – which means that adoption of these solutions isn't as high as it could be.

Another focus is aiding social research into the changing healthcare landscape and encouraging responsible innovation in digital healthcare, bringing together policy decision-makers, technology developers, researchers, and technology users to draw on a wide range of expertise.

Data science and artificial intelligence (AI)

This hub aims to help develop novel concepts and methods using data science and AI, which will then feed into clinical practice to improve patient care. For example, the work of this hub may find new ways to analyse routinely collected healthcare data to help provide opportunities for early detection and prevention diseases.

Solutions will be tested in clinical settings in Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto, and there will be opportunities for researchers and other stakeholders to collaborate with industry and government, and to share resources across borders.

A scientist working with data on a computer.

Looking to the future

While the Centre is in an early stage of operations, the digital health expertise across all three institutions is considerable, and could lead to some significant developments in this ever-expanding field.

"We recently awarded seed funding to a number of pilot projects, based on collaborations that have been facilitated as part of the Centre. Each project involved researchers from Manchester and Toronto," explains Charlotte Stockton-Powdrell, Programme Manager for the Centre.

"There was a project that explored translating a heart failure app developed in Toronto into the healthcare system in the UK. Another looked at how changes could be made to healthcare policies in the UK and Canada to increase access to primary care data for patients, while another project applied a health equity impact assessment tool that was developed in Toronto to a smartphone-based 'Pain Manikin' that was developed in Manchester."

In the longer term, the Centre will develop a joint PhD programme to offer opportunities for students to experience time spent with leading digital health experts in the three countries. It will also develop a pipeline to translate digital health technologies between the UK, Canada and Australia.

"We will foster relationships between industry partners and clinical and academic researchers who wish to take their products to market in one of our partner countries," Charlotte says.