“How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it”

Our Programme Manager reports back from a recent lecture at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

On the 23 May Dr Ben Goldacre gave a memorial lecture at LSHTM to honour the life and work of Dr Adrian Root. Adrian Root was a GP and epidemiologist who was passionate about studying the effects of medicines using electronic health records. Last year the Electronic Health Records Research Group at LSHTM raised over £22,000 pounds for an Adrian Root Memorial Fund by cycling from London to Paris.

There was a packed audience and Dr Ben Goldacre gave an energetic, irreverent and highly entertaining talk on why medicine needs to be data driven, and how academic papers alone will not bring about change. His passion for putting data to use shone thorough and examples and initiatives were cited in rapid succession.

One example was Openprescribing.net, a website that takes anonymised GP prescribing data, regularly released by NHS Digital, and combines it with online tools for non-specialists to use. It enables GPs, managers, and basically anyone with an Internet connection, to explore the data with a view to supporting safer, more efficient prescribing. One member of the audience was brave enough to volunteer the name of their GP practice for a live test and perhaps revealed more information about the nature of where they reside than they intended!

Another example was AllTrials, a campaign for all past and present clinical trials to be registered and their full methods and summary results to be reported. The aim being to ensure that when decisions are taken regarding treatments all of the evidence is available.

The lecture, to the delight of the audience, hugely overran and there was only time for a few questions. It did seem that this was an audience that was already convinced of the need for open and effective use of big data (or as Dr Goldacre phrased it, “annoying large data”) to guide medicine. However, the audience was clearly energised and took to heart his injunction to avoid complacency and engage with the data that is available rather than waiting for more complete or integrated datasets to become available.