Scotland's leadership on using health data in research

Chief Scientist for Health Andrew Morris on how Scotland is becoming the best place to do health research.

Chief Scientist for Health Andrew Morris on how Scotland is fast becoming the single best place to do health research, offering great opportunities for collaboration on asthma research that can transform millions of lives around the world.

In March, Asthma UK invited me to speak at the Cross Party Group on Asthma at the Scottish Parliament. Along with colleagues from the Scottish Government, Scottish universities, industry, NHS Scotland and people with asthma, we discussed Scotland’s wealth of assets in health research and the opportunities for breakthroughs in asthma research. 

Scotland’s proud heritage in health research

At the Cross Party Group we heard from Ron Macdonald who tragically lost his daughter Lydia (aged 28) to an asthma attack in Perth last June. This tragedy reminds us that we still have much to do to identify new ways to help the lives of the 2 million people living with long-term conditions in Scotland.

As a scientist, I’m all too familiar with Scotland’s rich heritage in delivering transformative health research, producing Nobel Prize winners such as Sir Alexander Fleming – famous for his discovery of penicillin. And it was a fellow Scotsman Sir David Jack from Fife who led the development of salbutamol, the key drug behind the blue reliever inhaler (Ventolin) known to millions of people with asthma the world over. But the breakthroughs of yesterday are not enough.

Globally, health systems are being challenged to deliver better quality healthcare at reduced cost, so we must find new innovative ways, underpinned by cutting-edge research, to provide services and treatments that are better and cheaper. We know that the next wave of health innovation is hurtling towards us, with new examples of digital health technology appearing in the news on a daily basis. But to truly realise the benefits of health innovation we need to see a convergence of care and research.

Delivering Innovation through Research

As Chief Scientist for Health, it’s my role to achieve this convergence and ensure that Scotland is the single best place to do health research in the world. Last year, I launched the Scottish Government’s strategy for health and social care research, in which we set out six key principles:

  1. Build on the strong science infrastructure that exists in Scottish universities; Deliver collaborative partnerships with a tripartite mission of education, research and service delivery;
  2. Exploit Scotland’s ability to link information and use data to support better treatment, safety and research;
  3. De-clutter the pathway for the regulation of health research by taking a proportionate approach to research governance;
  4. Deliver collaborative arrangements with industry;
  5. Position Scotland as a single research site when it makes good sense to do so.

We are making excellent progress across each of these six domains, and I remain ambitious about building on Scotland’s unique assets to be the global leader in health research.

Scotland’s data assets and the importance of collaboration

A key part of our strategy is to exploit Scotland’s exceptional data resources to support improvements in treatment and care. At the Cross Party Group, I was joined by my colleague Professor Aziz Sheikh, co-Director of the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, who noted the great opportunity to use Scotland’s data assets create a Learning Healthcare System – one that connects data to help real-time decision-making by frontline healthcare professionals and patients, thereby driving improvements in health outcomes and reducing costs. At best, such systems have only been developed for small populations in the USA; in Scotland, we have the chance to lead the world and create the first national Learning Healthcare System.

To do this requires complete and high quality data at the local, regional and national level, and collaboration between the public, researchers, the NHS, government and industry. Asthma, as a common, complex long-term condition – with global prevalence expected to reach 400 million by 2025 - is a prime candidate for utilising Scotland’s data assets to deliver such ground-breaking research. That’s why in my role as Director of the Farr Institute at Scotland, we are working with the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research to develop a Scottish Learning Health System for Asthma (SALSA). This represents a unique opportunity for Scotland to redefine what it means to live with a long-term condition.

It’s my hope that the above principles in our strategy – especially the drive to develop collaborations between government, industry and academia – will directly help asthma research to occur in Scotland, and help us produce tomorrow’s Flemings and Jacks. More importantly, with Scotland driving breakthroughs in health research, we will move one step closer to preventing tragedies such as Lydia Macdonald’s death from ever happening again.

Professor Andrew Morris is Professor of Medicine, Director of the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics and Vice Principal of Data Science at the University of Edinburgh, Chief Scientist at the Scottish Government Health Directorate, and Director of the Farr Institute at Scotland.