A collaboration which used anonymised GP records to identify 1.5m people most at risk from COVID-19 and prioritise them for vaccination has won the prestigious BCS award, the John Perry Prize for computing innovation in primary care.

Using QResearch, a database of more than over thirty five million anonymised health records derived from GP practices using the EMIS clinical computer system, researchers at the University of Oxford and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) developed a population-wide risk assessment model called QCovid.

QCovid was used by NHS Digital to predict on a population basis whether adults with a combination of risk factors may be at more serious risk from COVID-19 and should be prioritised for vaccination.

As a result, in February 1.5m high risk individuals were identified, added to the Shielded Patient List as a precautionary measure and prioritised for earlier vaccination. The research also played a vital role in raising public awareness of key COVID-19 risk factors.

Higher risk factors

The research was commissioned by England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty and funded by the National Institute of Health Research. It found that there are several health and personal factors which, when combined, could mean someone is at a higher risk from COVID-19. These include characteristics like age, ethnicity and body mass index, as well as certain medical conditions and treatments.

The John Perry Prize rewards those who have made an outstanding contribution to innovation and excellence within primary care computing and informatics.

Vital role of real-life data collection

Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, professor of clinical epidemiology and general practice at the University of Oxford, said: “Identifying patients at highest risk for interventions quickly in a pandemic at national scale is not something any of us were expecting to have to do. So, we are very grateful to the many hundreds of GP practices who contribute anonymised data to QResearch and to fantastic support from Oxford, EMIS, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Digital, National Institute for Health Research, our patient advisers and many academic collaborators, which made this possible.”

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Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer at EMIS, said: “EMIS is incredibly proud to have supported this important piece of research, which continues to enable the NHS to protect more vulnerable people, more quickly, from COVID-19.

“This is the latest in a long list of research projects that has been powered by real-life data collected from thousands of GP consultations every day. We are thankful to the GP practices that have supported QResearch over the last 15 years - without them this important initiative would not be available to help improve the health of the nation.”

Use of Informatics to improve the nation’s health

Dr Philip Scott, chair of the BCS Health and Care specialist group said: “This project showed how data science and health informatics can help us to identify vulnerable people at scale to prioritise their treatment. It is a great example of how informatics can be used to improve population health.

“During the pandemic we have seen a massive acceleration in digital health, and this project is just one example that shows how, during such a crisis, tech can be used to tackle a problem effectively, ethically and quickly. BCS is proud to give this award to such a worthwhile project that sets a pattern for real world research based on routine clinical data.”

Professor Jonathan Benger, chief medical officer of NHS Digital, said: “Data has been critical in powering our nation’s response to the pandemic in so many different ways, including support to world-leading research and prioritising the care of those most vulnerable in society.

“I am immensely proud of the team, both at NHS Digital and across our many partner organisations, for coming together to develop and implement this innovative solution which has identified and protected those most at risk from COVID-19.”

Since 1985, the John Perry Prize has been awarded to individuals or teams for their innovation and excellence in primary care computing or informatics. It has been given  to those  who have made an outstanding contribution, either as a paper, a piece of software, or a set of accomplishments.

Previous winners have developed tools, among others, to support the analysis of appointments, and subsequent changes in ways of working to improve access, which has since been implemented in multiple CCG areas.

QResearch® is a not-for-profit collaboration between the University of Oxford and EMIS, the UK’s leading provider of computer systems in primary care. It is a large consolidated database derived from the anonymised health records of over 35 million patients. More than 1,500 EMIS practices, representing around 30 million patients, regularly contribute to the database. It also contains historical records dating back to 1989, making it one of the largest and richest general practice databases in the world.

EMIS Group is the UK leader in connected healthcare software and systems. Its solutions are widely used across every major UK healthcare setting. EMIS Group’s aim is to join up healthcare through innovative technology, helping to deliver better health outcomes to the UK population, supporting longer and healthier lives.

Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine and life sciences, and it is home to the UK’s top-ranked medical school. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and healthcare delivery.

Within the division, the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences is the largest, top-ranked centre for academic primary care in the UK and leads world-class research and training to rethink the way healthcare is delivered in general practice and other primary care settings. The department’s main research focus is on the prevention, early diagnosis and management of common illness, bringing together academics from many different backgrounds to work together to produce benefits for the NHS, for populations and for patients.