Tackling health inequalities with digital technologies to help people live longer, healthier lives
By Professor Ashley Blom, Vice-President and Head of the Faculty of Health at the University of Sheffield
Originally published in the Yorkshire Post
South Yorkshire has some of the worst health outcomes in the country. Life expectancy lags behind the national averages, and people are not only living shorter lives – they are living those lives in poorer health. Cancer outcomes are the third worse in England, and our region faces challenges in access to care and poor health infrastructure. Without urgent action, health inequality gaps will only widen.
Of course, the factors that lead to these inequalities are complex, and there is no silver bullet. That is why it is so important that universities, GPs, hospitals and businesses come together to share their expertise and new innovations that can help people live healthier lives for longer.
One of the things we’re looking at in South Yorkshire is how we can use cutting-edge data analytics, AI and mobile health monitoring to diagnose diseases quicker and make treatments more targeted and effective.
Many of us now use different technologies in our daily lives and it is increasingly common for people to use a smartphone or wear a smartwatch, sleep ring or other health tracking sensor or implant. These devices can provide invaluable information about our health, like the number of steps we take, the hours we sleep, our heart rate and blood oxygen. This data is currently underutilised in healthcare and could hold significant potential in helping us diagnose disease earlier and quicker.
We are exploring how we can integrate this information with routine healthcare data, like treatments, medication or hospital procedures, to improve care for patients. Taking such a personalised approach could also reduce costs for the NHS.
But the success of the South Yorkshire Digital Health Hub — a £4 million hub, led by the University of Sheffield in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University — will depend on partners working together. We all have a role to play — not just universities, but GPs, hospitals, regions, businesses and patients who can each provide expertise and insights to drive the development of digital technologies.
It is critical we build a network of patients, doctors, health professionals, industry representatives, academics and members of the public across South Yorkshire, linked to the rest of the UK.
This week Google is hosting a Digital Garage at the centre, and announced 30 health apprenticeships and 100 digital scholarships in this exciting field with enormous potential.
We are working with civic partners, including the South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authorities, regional NHS Trusts, and supporting the thriving Medical Technology business community with a £5 million funding boost from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC) Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). This money will drive new product development through academic-industrial collaboration, creating high-value jobs and growing the regional economy.
Yorkshire is already an internationally recognised centre for the manufacture of medical devices and related technologies for health and, over the past 120 years, Sheffield has been at the heart of some of the most important health discoveries helping to save millions of lives around the world.
It’s commonly known that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but what most people don’t know is that penicillin was first used as a therapy on patients at the University of Sheffield.
Dr Cecil George Paine, a former student of Fleming, used penicillin to treat an eye infection in two babies. Penicillin and other antibiotics in its class have been a centrepiece of human healthcare for over 90 years and have saved over 200 million lives.
In 2021, Sheffield scientists were once again at the forefront of this field of research, when they uncovered the mechanisms of how antibiotics actually work. This discovery is a momentous milestone and turning point in the urgent global challenge of antimicrobial resistance.
Last December marked the 100th anniversary since the first diabetes patient in England was successfully treated with insulin. The Medical Research Council chose the University to run one of the first clinical trials of insulin in the 1920s, when diabetes was effectively a death sentence. Sheffield industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Stuart Goodwin, was the first patient in England, and one of the first in the world, to be successfully treated with insulin in 1923.
Now 100 years on, more than 200 million people worldwide are dependent on insulin therapy to treat their diabetes and what we know about the condition is constantly evolving. Thanks to research and clinical trials conducted in Sheffield, people of all ages are leading full, healthy and long lives with type 1 diabetes.
More recently researchers at the University of Sheffield have made fundamental contributions to understanding how PARP inhibitors work. This has led to the development of novel drugs that are currently used to treat millions of people world-wide who are suffering from cancer.
These medical milestones would not have been possible without working in collaboration with partners or the generosity of the people of Sheffield, who gave penny donations to establish a university in the city in 1905. Now, it is more important than ever that we continue to fulfil our civic mission so we can continue to translate revolutionary research to improve health outcomes in our region.
The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.