In summer 1996, I found myself amongst the chaos of an HIV and AIDS clinic in downtown Mumbai.
It was 07:00. Patients were already queued on benches along the corridors. It was an eye-opening introduction to the three months I would spend in India working on my Master’s dissertation.
What really struck me was the inadequate resources. Clinicians (at least those who would touch patients thought to have HIV) were unfamiliar with the virus, and the Indian Government denied it was a problem at all. My task was to apply Operational Research (OR) and mathematical modelling techniques to measure the scale of infection and the resources needed to tackle it.
I look back fondly on that summer. No one had ever told me mathematics could be useful for healthcare, let alone that it might save lives. That passion persists, and I’m excited to be leading a talented team of collaborative researchers funded by various healthcare partners.
The NHS currently has to deal with increasing demand and complexity within constrained budgets. Designing and delivering services that maximise resources is vital. Healthcare systems typically operate in an uncertain environment. Hundreds of patients with varying needs will pass along different care pathways every day. Help is needed to forecast demand, schedule clinics, reduce waiting times and so on.
We build mathematical based models of current processes and use them to explore “what if?” scenarios of different ways of working. This is much safer than experimenting with changes ‘for real’. It’s a technique that really does save lives.
In one major hospital, our research completely redesigned care for stroke patients, resulting in a reduction in mortality rates by 60%. In another hospital's A&E department, our work helped save the Health Board £1.6m per year.
But a hospital is just one part of the system. What happens there is influenced by, and has an impact on, policy decisions within primary care. Planning plays a vital part in balancing the system. It can help overcome geography, so services reach patients within a critical time limit, and ensure the cost-effective delivery of policies.
Our collaboration with the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board addresses this. An embedded modelling unit employs a team of operational researchers, allowing the expertise to be accessed across Health Board departments.
The team’s methods create outputs and impact case studies, acting as a catalyst for further grant applications and funding, including PhD studentships. In turn, research activities enhance our student experience, so knowledge improves.
We are unaware of a unit of this nature and scale in the UK, and potentially worldwide. Our work is putting the University, the Board and NHS Wales on the map as a hub for innovation in the design and delivery of healthcare services.
See Professor Paul Harper discuss the 'Maths Saves Lives' project.
Our research has a real impact across many areas including reducing waiting times in hospitals.