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Modelling winter pressures at the NHS-R conference

A conference report by Tom Lawton

 

Simulating the processes of a hospital can help us foresee challenges to which we can proactively respond. The Digital Innovation theme is working on simulations of how patients flow through the hospital to improve foresight relating to increased patient pressures, like what might be expected from the current COVID-19 virus. Our colleague, Tom Lawton, presented his work at a conference of analysts and statisticians associated with the National Health Service (NHS).

Who are the NHS-R community?

The NHS-R community is a network of NHS staff that use the R programming language to do healthcare analysis. The second NHS-R conference was a sell-out event, twice as large as 2018’s inaugural event, and represents an excellent opportunity for the community to come together and share ideas.

 

What is the ‘Winter Pressures’ project about?

The Winter Pressures project, supported by the Health Foundation, presents a novel data-driven modelling technique to simulate a virtual hospital. As patient-safety specialists, we are using state-of-the-art simulation techniques to improve our understanding of what might contribute to winter pressures, and hopefully uncover potential mitigations. What we learn from this work has implications for how we model patient flow in general, which could help us make informed preparations for events such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

 

How can simulation contribute to patient safety?

The more we know about what might happen, the better we can plan the best care. Simulation modelling can be used to safely test out scenarios/decisions and ideas to help alleviate unwanted circumstances, like the pressures caused by spikes in admissions. Modelling allows us to test even the strangest ideas without ever putting a patient at risk by making changes in a virtual hospital rather than a real one.

You can try something similar by playing the 1997 computer game Theme Hospital (or more recently, Two Point hospital, which I beta tested!). The game simulates a hospital in which your task is to treat patients against the clock. Our Winter Pressures project created a more complicated and specific simulation to understand how patient flow is affected by a variety of interventions.

For example, what happens if we run a “hotel” to assist patients who were clinically well but had stayed for social reasons? What is the effect of expanding the use of the diagnostic virtual ward, whereby patients are able to wait at home but have their investigations prioritised as if they were in the hospital?

– Image sourced from https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KvgifLGujDU/maxresdefault.jpg

 

How is the Digital Innovation theme making use of simulation for safety?

Our hospital simulation can be scaled up from a single ward to model an entire hospital at once. We have released the computer code in the hope that we can drive further use of this powerful technique in the NHS.

As part of the NHS-R conference, I led two workshops on simulation modelling using r-simmer. These sold out quickly, demonstrating how much interest there is in doing this kind of work in the NHS. We started with a basic model of an Intensive-Care Unit using more traditional techniques and built it up until it was fully data-driven.

It was difficult for those not already versed in R programming and what is known as Discrete Event Simulation. This showed the need for further training in simulation modelling and we are already in discussions about setting up training so more people can learn how to use these powerful techniques.

 

The importance of sharing for safety

These kinds of conferences are extremely important to allow projects like this to “touch base” with others, and ensure that the outputs are useful both in terms of what is needed in the NHS, and what can drive the state-of-the-art without being too complex to use. They also serve as a great opportunity to promote the benefits of this kind of improvement work, so it can be used across the NHS for patient benefit. Safety is a property of our healthcare systems so it can only be ensured through healthy and effective connection and communication between us all.

 

How can I get involved?

We in the Digital Innovation theme would like to know what healthcare project ideas you might have that could benefit from event simulation. Let us know in the comment section below.

And don’t forget to tell us how you get on running your own Theme Hospital.

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

The Winter Pressures project is part of the Health Foundation’s Applied Analytics programme. The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.