Big data analytics that helps fight superbugs and drug dependency

Big data analytics continues to hold currency in the commercial world, especially where operating margins are tight and customers discerning, yet it’s always interesting to discover a story where data was analyzed and value extracted that has, let’s say, more of a “human interest” than those in the business world.

Such is the case with the analysis of openly-available data sets on both the prescription and the consumption of antibiotics drugs in England. As the costs of medical care and medicines themselves continue to rise, understanding how and where antibiotic drugs are consumed is of increasing interest to healthcare bodies and local government administrations alike as they balance the ability to treat us as patients efficiently with the need to ensure they are getting value for the public money they’re spending.

So, it was that in mind that EXASOL recently joined forces with Antibiotic Research UK, the world’s first charity created to develop new antibiotics in the fight against superbugs, to conduct research into this area by taking massive data sets widely available on UK government portals in order to understand what is going on with antibiotics. The project was also run to coincide with an EU initiative around Antibiotics Awareness Day on November 18. Here’s what we found out:

  • In England, doctors prescribe 59% more antibiotics in December than they do in August, despite the fact that illnesses treated by antibiotics are not seasonal and, more worryingly, antibiotics are being prescribed and consumed to treat viral conditions, which is a fruitless exercise. Meaning: How many times have we gone to the doctor with a cold or the flu, only to be told that antibiotics cannot cure them? Well, it seems that some doctors are still prescribing them.
  • The number of prescriptions per head peaked in 2012 with a total of 3.8 million prescriptions to English patients, but this number has dropped 5.6% since.
    Meaning: This either means that fewer people are seeing their doctor, or we are getting healthier.
  • However, there is a widening deprivation gap: The gap between prescriptions in the least and most deprived areas of England is widening and the difference in prescribing between the bottom and top 1% by deprivation is 20%.
    Meaning: Those that have fewer means are consuming more antibiotics, consumption rates are linked to social standing.
  • Doctors in London prescribe 21% fewer antibiotics than those in the North of England. The data also reveals that the most deprived coastal towns in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Essex are prescribing the most antibiotics in the country, with Clacton-on-Sea, the UK’s most deprived area, prescribing almost twice the national average.
    Meaning: Again, this shows that patients who have the least are more likely to be getting ill and therefore need antibiotics.

While this is a project that is very focused on healthcare in England, it highlights the benefits of analytics and how public bodies and administrations can quickly use vast amounts of data to understand how many drugs are being prescribed and to whom. As part of the research, we created a visual heat map so that users can see easily where the most affected areas are.

If you’d like to learn more about this project, our findings were covered in articles that appeared on BBC News and in New Scientist magazine, where you can also find the heat map that our analysis generated as well as a list of the openly-available data sets that were used. There’s also a news release on our website.

Big data has many uses, but when it’s data that means something to you and me (after all, we’re all patients and potential consumers of antibiotics), it drives home the point much more succinctly on the true value of data analytics and insights.

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