Microsoft Azure harnesses the power of big data to unleash powerful epidemiological insights

Preventing epidemics

Big data turns doctor notes into pandemic detection system


Fever, muscle aches, fatigue.


That's what the doctor scribbled on his tablet. His patient was showing the classic signs of the common flu. She was elderly, so special care had to be taken. Still, it was a simple diagnosis, something doctors have dealt with for decades.

But today, it was different.

Because the good doctor's scribbles were more than personal notes or a prescription for a pharmacist. They were part of something that could change healthcare itself.

Healthcare innovation origins: celebrity gossip?

In 2013, Paul Henderson, Business Intelligence Division Head at healthcare consultancy Ascribe, was attending the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference. He saw an interesting demonstration that monitored all the content on Twitter to see which celebrities were on the rise to their 15 minutes of fame and which were on their way to a tragic Hollywood downfall.

It was a classic hot-or-not idea. Great for gossip columnists. But healthcare providers?

Henderson saw it another way. What if instead of analyzing Twitter gossip, the system analyzed doctors’ notes instead? If they were all entered on tablets, the technology would be practically identical to the Hollywood version.

Social media content spreads like a virus. Can a similar system help to stop viruses from spreading, as well?

A solution not too far away

Hospitals already measure everything, creating a vast volume of data just waiting to be harvested. But historically, they are backward-facing analysts: how many beds were filled, how long was recovery time. That's how they maximized return on investment.

“You have lots of small pieces of data coming in from multiple places, and it can be very difficult to aggregate and interpret.”

- Paul Henderson, Business Intelligence Division Head, Ascribe

Ascribe's idea is different. It reacts fast, just like healthcare data needs to. It can detect outbreaks of flu and other pandemics around the world. As soon as a doctor or nurse writes it, it becomes part of a global monitoring system for good.

The granny the doctor is caring for, for example, is a patient at Leeds Teaching Hospital, one of the main participants in the project. So now if she's Patient Zero of a dangerous flu strain, or the tipping point of an epidemic, the healthcare system will know – and be able to react – much sooner.

Putting it to the test

Ascribe asked Leeds Teaching Hospitals, one of the largest providers of emergency care services in Europe, to participate in a pilot for the project. With roughly one million unstructured case files each month and almost half a million records a year in its Accident and Emergency Department system, the hospital was an ideal candidate.

The company constructed a system on Windows 8 apps for tablets and then worked with Microsoft partner Two10Degrees to have data pushed to Microsoft Azure. That program then analyzed millions of rows of accident and emergency data. In just a few hours, they were able to process six years’ worth of data!

"The results amazed me," Henderson said. "We were able to map the [point-of-care] notes to drug dictionaries and other clinical taxonomies so that we could look for outbreaks of infectious diseases..."

From Aberdeen to London, Ascribe’s Windows 8-based technology provides a cure for what ails healthcare professionals.

What the future holds

What started with data scribbled down in a humble cubicle in Leeds Teaching Hospital has been scaled to millions of data points, all pointing the way to early detection.

“This is a new paradigm,” says Henderson. “We can capture data written in plain English and use it to improve services, instead of waiting for a resource-hungry process to collect and code the information. This will reinvent the way we work with medical records in the future.”

With this technology, the catastrophic pandemics we read about in the news could become a thing of the past. Whether it's the doctor diagnosing a flu patient, or another doctor halfway around the world, the key to catching epidemics before they start could be just a few notes away.

Partner Spotlight

Ascribe Ltd


Ascribe Ltd is a leading supplier of business intelligence, consultancy, and clinically focused IT solutions and services in healthcare, with customers in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.


View partner profile


Ascribe's Business Intelligence is enabling Leeds Teaching Hospital to apply Natural Language Processing to free text fields. This improves their understanding about the needs of the local community and their ability to provide education to help reduce casualties.

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