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Integrating population health data for better interventions

John Macleod

Professor John Macleod

19 October 2017

An EBI-funded study to improve health and social outcomes for children in care could be an important first step towards developing a ‘digital population health laboratory’ to boost the health and wellbeing of people in Bristol.

Bristol is relatively well equipped with data about the health of its citizens, collected either routinely or as part of cohort studies such as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Creating the infrastructure to allow this data to be linked and analysed could lead to better interventions that would improve the health and wellbeing of the local population.

To help realise this ambition the EBI has mapped out an infrastructure, with the idea of testing it through a series of exemplar projects. The first of these is a study by the University’s Department of Population Health Sciences to see how well young people in need or in local authority care perform in their GCSE exams compared to their peers, and possible reasons for any differences.

The study went ahead thanks to an EBI Catalyst Fund designed to seed novel interdisciplinary research. Professor John Macleod and his team linked data from ALSPAC with the National Pupil Database of educational data for pupils in England. They then used further data from the Department for Education to identify children aged 14-16 who were in need or in local authority care.

This included information on the reasons behind the children’s circumstances (eg parental illness, child disability or neglect), the length of time involved and places in which they were cared for (eg foster home, care home).

The study showed that teenagers in these groups did markedly worse in their GCSEs compared to their peers. But it also suggested that this could not be fully explained by their families’ poorer socio-economic situation while they were young. Limitations of the data in terms of the years covered meant the team is now seeking further data from the Department of Education to examine the importance of factors such as the type of care they received.

Professor Macleod and his colleagues will use this to consider children’s experiences of being in care at younger ages, including their mental health and the influence of factors such as the type of placements, to understand better why these children tend to do less well at school and have poorer mental health than their peers. The researchers will use the results of this study to support a further funding application, and they are exploring a possible collaboration with colleagues at University College London’s Institute of Child Health. An abstract on the work so far has been submitted to the Informatics for Health 2017 Congress.

'This work has made a valuable contribution to developing the concept of a Digital Population Laboratory in Bristol,’ said Professor Macleod. ‘It has helped us clarify the pitfalls but also the potential of this project, and is an important first step towards realising our wider ambition of integrating routinely collected and cohort data to create knowledge for public benefit.’

In April 2018 Professor Macleod, received £1.5 million as part of a large grant from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to develop a platform for conducting research into early years influences on mental health.

The University of Bristol is among nine leading universities across the UK to receive part of a £10 million grant from the MRC to help researchers use data science for mental health research. This was secured by the MRC as part of the government’s National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF). See the full story on the Centre for Academic Care, University of Bristol website.

Further information

Learn more about Professor Macleod’s research on the University of Bristol website.


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