Gary Leeming

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M-RIC stories – Building the motorway for research and innovation


By Gary Leeming, M-RIC Chief Technology Officer

I was eight years old when I started using my dad’s computer and learned how to use it. Later my friends got Spectrum computers, and we would copy code from computer magazines, playing with those programmes to make our own.

I didn’t think of computers as a career at that point as I wanted to see more of the world. I studied Chinese at university and spent time in China studying, and later working.

When I came back from China I got a temporary role at Yorkshire Water in a special projects team, just when the internet was starting and few companies had websites. We did a lot of work on a database system, built their first website and my work in software and tech grew from there.

I think my childhood interest gave me the mindset to work with computers, and learning Chinese, spending time abroad, has helped me to develop a unique approach to how I work on problems and meet and listen to people. Some engineers can focus on solving a problem, without really listening to what the problem is first.

That mindset proved really valuable in later years when being involved in big collaborations like the Salford Lung Study and the Liverpool City Region Civic Data Co-operative. The emphasis when using confidential, personal data has to be on considering what is right; what do people want us to do with their information, how we communicate with them about what we are doing, and how can we respect that and make it secure.


Listening to all perspectives when creating data infrastructure is really important and that’s what we do in the Civic Data Co-operative.


We’re also looking at the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the ethics of applying AI to data. It is fascinating to me that our world, of using data and software, has become less about the tech and what we can do with it; and more about taking a whole society approach. We have to start thinking more widely about what is appropriate to do, what type of data should we be collecting and storing and what the impact of the whole system could be.

My first job in healthcare was while working at Manchester University where I became involved in the use of a shared care record for research. We looked across GPs and hospitals in the Salford Integrated Record to build tools and undertake specific research with approval from the local committee.

In discussing these questions of ethics, law and confidentiality I became more interested in the types of challenges created by using health data. For example, using data about people with rare diseases, different ethnicities, or refugee status, may mean that they are at higher risk of being re-identified, but we can’t ignore or not use that data because it would be increasing the disparity or bias against people who may have the highest need.


It’s part of the complexity which makes health data so fascinating as a topic. 


This work led to the Salford Lung Study, collaborating with the NHS and pharma company GSK and using the Salford Integrated Record not just to recruit patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma to trial a new medication; but also to track wherever they turned up in the system, hospital or GP practice.

It meant we didn’t need to set up additional trial visits for patients – there was no extra burden on them as the NHS could track them through their normal use of the medication, to keep them safe. And, with patient consent, we gathered an unprecedented level of information, to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of the medication.

That got me interested in how we do it on a wider footprint, which is where the Connected Health Cities programme came in, delivered across the North of England. This work illustrated how we can build a learning health system by using big data to focus on projects like the use of alcohol services in Liverpool; care of elderly people in the North East; and data showing risks of falling and frailty in Bradford.

The legacy of Connected Health Cities continues in all four regions; in the North West we are collaborating to create a NW Secure Data Environment, to support research across the whole of the area while retaining local control. The Mental Health Research for Innovation Centre (M-RIC), NHS Cheshire and Merseyside and Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust are key parts of that, especially in providing the secure infrastructure design we are building for M-RIC. We continue to work together, sharing technical approaches and processes.


So the impact of M-RIC is already being felt as our work is informing this bigger programme. 

 


As Connected Health Cities came to an end, Covid happened. I had been working in Manchester with Professor Iain Buchan and he moved to Liverpool and was setting up the Civic Data Co-operative and leading on Covid-related research projects.

I was asked to become director of the Civic Data Co-operative and also to get involved in the national Covid research with Professor Callum Semple. A business case was presented to fund M-RIC through the UK mental health mission; and I took on the role of Chief Technology Officer.

It is up to our researchers in M-RIC to make use of this data in a timely way, to avoid the situation called data latency. It can take 18 years for an idea to reach patients and this is made worse by data being out of date or incomplete.

We want to get new treatments into the hands of patients faster; and with M-RIC working with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust we are building a learning system and developing innovations in tandem with the research, using information that is current to patients now.

There is scope in the next four years for M-RIC to have some of the biggest impact of any of the work I have ever done, in terms of scale and also in terms of the practicality and sustainability of the work we are planning.

We are building the motorway to make things happen at speed, to enable researchers to carry out exciting research and innovation which will benefit patients and service users now, not in 18 years’ time.


Gary Leeming discusses building a trustworthy research environment

Intelligence from different sources is being combined for translational health research on a platform created as part of M-RIC. Gary Leeming, M-RIC Chief Technology Officer, describes the opportunities provided through the creation of a unique, trusted research environment.