Data and patient education are untapped tools in the war against disease

One of the world’s leading cancer doctors says avoiding disease is key to lowering healthcare costs – with patient education and data the untapped NHS tools of prevention.

Dr David Agus, who is Professor of Medicine and Engineering at the University of Southern California as well as a New York Times bestselling author and CBS news contributor, says rather than focus efforts on treating advanced disease, the NHS should instead harness its wealth of data to gather more information on prevention, and leverage its brand to spread the knowledge to patients.

Speaking at the Health and Care Innovation Expo 2015 in Manchester, he said: “The goal is to help patients live well to their ninth or tenth decade, and the way to do this is to avoid disease.

“In one study of a group of women with breast cancer, half the women were given a drug for osteoporosis and half were given a placebo.  The women who received the drug for osteoporosis saw an improvement, even though the drug they took was not meant for cancer.  This is because the breast cancer metasises to bone. So like a plant, if we change the soil, the weed will not grow.

“As a cancer doctor, my job is not to target the cancer, but to change the patient so the cancer no longer wants to grow.”

Dr Agus has empowered high profile patients like Neil Young, Lance Armstrong and Steve Jobs to improve their quality of life, now he wants to do the same for the rest of us. In his book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, Agus prescribes 65 rules we should follow to achieve better health.

He points to the link between movement and wellbeing, highlighting a study showing that children who replaced study with physical activity for twenty minutes three times a week learned more.

He also advises routine for regular meals, sleep and exercise and advocates daily measurement of physical activity and other lifestyle factors to build a personal health profile. Other guidelines may surprise some: he encourages the regular use of statins and aspirin for some patients, and speaks out against vitamins.

“The reason we tan is to block vitamin D production, yet we go around it and take vitamin supplements.  In another study, a group of smokers who took vitamin A or beta carotene had a 28 per cent higher incidence of lung disease.

“These are not blanket rules for everyone, instead they represent a guideline as to what people should consider to maximise their health.  We all have a right to do what we want regarding health. “We can smoke, be sedentary, eat anything, but at some point we have to do the right thing! Prevention is key, and we are all empowered to prevent much of disease.  Prevention starts with each of us, but the NHS can assist.

“We know a lot of data on how to prevent disease.  The NHS is one of the greatest treasure troves of this kind of data and we need to use that information to benefit humanity.  We need to develop data standards for the collection and nomenclature of data and we need to involve patients to show them that with permission to share their data, they can be part of the cure.

“Finally, the NHS is a remarkable worldwide brand.  This brand can be used for patient information materials that educate patients and empower them to take responsibility for their own health, in turn helping us create a sustainable health service for the future.”