An innovative project being developed by the University of Sydney aims to improve the patient journey through the health system, while also keeping people well and out of hospital – and digital health and data analytics will play a key role.

Serving a population of nearly two million people – with an additional one million people expected in the next 15 years – the Westmead health precinct is one of Sydney’s largest and busiest healthcare locations.

Dr Andrew Black.

Encompassing four major hospitals – including Westmead Hospital and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead – the precinct is currently undergoing substantial development.

A key future element of the precinct will be The Living Lab, an innovative project being developed by the University of Sydney (one of Digital Health CRC’s university participants) with partners in the precinct and the wider community.

“This project adds another dimension to our University’s long involvement at the Westmead precinct” says Dr Andrew Black, Director of The Living Lab at Westmead.

“Our aim is to establish the Lab as a convening platform to bring together a wide range of stakeholders – including academics, health practitioners and educators, clinicians, researchers, industry and the community of Western Sydney – for innovation in health and wellbeing.”

“We want the Lab to be able to engage stakeholders, facilitate the development of a shared view of what the important health and wellbeing challenges are for the community of Western Sydney, and co-design innovative solutions to those challenges.”

“We will be looking at the pathways by which people come into (and out of) the health system – for example, via emergency presentations, a standard GP check, chronic disease management or self-diagnosis – and how care is delivered.”

“We want to better understand how people are navigating the care system, the coordination of their care, and how patients can maintain their health once they return to the community post-treatment.”

“At the centre of our work will be how we can make healthcare more efficient and effective, including through the greater personalisation of care.”

“There are already examples of remote monitoring of the health status of patients to assess whether they need to come in for a check-up, while also using that data in aggregate to look at larger scale effects across a community.”

“We are particularly keen to apply this approach to preventative health and the wider determinants of wellbeing. Factors such as transport, housing, the walkability of the community space, access to recreation space, nutrition, even the heat effect in Western Sydney – and how people make choices in these areas – are important contributors to wellbeing.”

Creating a ‘Data Commons’

While the Lab will have a physical base at Westmead, it will also have a digital home.

“One thing we will be doing is establishing a digital platform and ‘Data Commons’ for the Lab, so we can bring together clinical data with research data and other kinds of data that we can capture for our community” Dr Black says.

“This could include environmental data, consumer data and socio-economic data to help us gain an insight into the particular challenges that individuals and communities might be facing, and therefore design more targeted solutions and better measure outcomes.”

He adds that the Lab’s partnership with both Westmead Hospital and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead makes for an even greater opportunity to consider health and wellbeing over the lifespan.

“This will enable beginning-to-end consideration of health and wellbeing, and will enhance our capacity for longitudinal tracking and understanding of lifelong development. It will also provide us with a good opportunity to focus on adolescent health – including, for example, the development of mental health issues.”

Dr Black says the Lab is seeking to become a trusted place to facilitate this kind of collaborative innovation.

“We want anyone, particularly from the community, to feel free to come to us if they have a particular issue they want to explore.”

“Importantly, we want to give people the tools to take greater agency in considering their own health outcomes and wellbeing.”

“The health system needs to become more patient-focused and community-centric, so while we have scoped what the Lab might look like from an academic perspective, we can’t be prescriptive – we want to be working on things that are important to the community.”

“The cultural diversity of Western Sydney is another significant dimension of this project. With a major Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population here – as well as large communities from other cultures – this is a fascinating place in which to work, but at the same time one where you need to be culturally sensitive and thoughtful.”

Dr Black says a key strength of the Lab will be its detailed understanding of the local community.

“Getting to know the community is critical and will take ongoing attention. But the more nuanced our understanding of the ecosystem is, the better we will be able to understand the critical problems and measure the effect of any intervention we try.”

A practical focus

A core component of the Lab will be its practical endpoint.

“Our team’s capability will be focused around project design, relationship and project management, and data management” Dr Black says.

“We will need the right capability to help conceptualise a problem with our partners, co-design an intervention around that problem, and then evaluate the outcomes and process.”

“This is a real opportunity for the University to bring design and evaluation capabilities, amongst others, to agile interventions around health and wellbeing.”

“By assessing interventions as we go, we can see quickly whether we need to change what we are doing or whether we are doing something that can scale up.”

“The emphasis will be on shorter timeframes and testing things in a real context, either in the hospital or the community, with the users of the particular intervention we are testing at the centre of the activity.”

He adds that, through the co-creation of projects with other stakeholders, the Lab will provide a great opportunity for university scholarship to have a more immediate and tangible impact.

“If we are successful, we will deliver significant impact for individuals and communities here in Western Sydney and beyond.”

“One of the important things will be to ensure that we can show our stakeholders – particularly in the health sector – the value of what we do, in terms that are most relevant for them, especially if there is a cost in testing something different.”

“For example, it can be difficult to quantify the financial value of improving a person’s health literacy, making their interaction with the health system more efficient, or delaying the onset of a chronic condition that will eventually require time in a hospital. Thoughtful use of data will assist us in doing this.”

A formal strategy for The Living Lab will be completed by the end of June, with the Lab to start building capacity, its collaborative community and ‘Data Commons’ in the months ahead.


The Living Lab’s four strategic pillars

  • Collaborative decision-making with the University’s community and partners – to generate innovative ideas across a range of disciplines and stakeholders.
  • Inter-disciplinary problem solving and knowledge translation – to co-create, explore, experiment and evaluate new ways of doing things in a real-life context.
  • Establishing a ‘Data Commons’ by mobilising data from a diverse range of sources, to support the transformation of health and healthcare through digital health and data-enabled education and research.
  • Research and education projects focusing on the core themes of the University’s precinct partners – currently diagnostic sciences and technologies, person-centred care, and sustainable health.

Read more about The Living Lab:
https://sydney.edu.au/about-us/campuses/campus-locations/westmead.html
(see ‘Read the Academic Strategy for Westmead’).

Email Dr Andrew Black at [email protected].


Credits

Article by Patrick Daley.

Pedestrian photo by Rose Lamond on Unsplash.