NHS geospatial app saves vital staff time

NHS Trusts could help staff plan their journeys more efficiently and cut their impact on the climate with software that can help district nurses and health visitors plan their journeys more efficiently.

Data scientists from NHS England’s Digital Analytics & Research Team and engineers from Google Health collaborated to develop a web app that can optimise routes between locations. This can help to reduce the amount of fuel used when making health visits or by ambulances that have a series of patient drop offs to do. As well as saving money and cutting carbon emissions, it can also mean health workers spend less time travelling between visits, giving them more time to spend with patients.

It is due to be presented at the first ever Health and Care Analytics Conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on 11-12 July.

“District nurses can be visiting multiple patients in their homes each day, so we wanted to find a way for them to plan the most efficient route to get to the patients,” said Paul Carroll, senior data scientist at NHS England’s Digital Analytics Research Team, who led the project.

“If they have 10 appointments in a day, there could be 3.6 million different routes they could take. If there are 12 addresses to visit, that becomes 479 million permutations. These are difficult problems to solve and we wanted to be able to do it in a way that could be done an average laptop computer.”

Currently, many NHS trusts rely on third party companies to provide routing information.

Mr Carroll and his team, who were working as part of programming community called NHS-pycom, developed the code in an open-source app framework called Streamlit so that analysts at NHS trusts could adapt it to their requirements. This could help to overcome potential data privacy issues as the patient information would not have to be sent to a third party or uploaded to a server.

In the case of district nurses, they could use the app to plot routes between up to 12 addresses and display them on a map, taking into account the distance between each one, driving times at peak and off-peak hours, walking time and cycling time.

“The idea is they can spend less time travelling and more time with patients,” said Mr Carroll.

The app has two additional functions which were developed in response to unmet needs identified by NHS Trusts. One suggests the shortest route that staff and patients might be able to take to reach a hospital or other health service. This could be used to help reduce the climate emissions as they travel to work or to help patients find which service is closest to them. Although this initially used driving and walking data, Mr Carroll said it could be expanded in the future to include public transport and cycle routes.

The second tool was designed to show the best location for services such as a vaccination centre or mobile blood test unit to ensure they can cover as much of the population in an area as possible. This took into account travel time and local authority population data and was a simplified version of something that many retailers already use to find the best place to locate a new store that is accessible by as many people as possible and away from competitors.

“Geospatial needs within the NHS are everywhere, from ambulance patient drop-offs to where to site a new GP practice within your community,” said Mr Carroll.