It was clear the toxic cloud from Britain’s worst peacetime industrial disaster posed a huge threat to respiratory health.
Lying just a few miles north of London, the soot cloud in 2005 risked sending rates of lung and heart complaints soaring in the densely-packed capital.
Before long, government health advisers turned to QSurveillance. The real-time patient assessment tool was one of the fastest ways of measuring the impact of the disaster on the nation’s health.
Covering millions of GPs’ patients, it would be one of the first systems to pick up on a surge in breathing problems. Fortunately, the disaster’s health impact turned out to be relatively small, but QSurveillance has since proved its worth to the nation’s health.
The tool, spawned by Leeds-based healthcare software firm Emis Group, now covers more than 20 million patients registered at about 2,900 GP practices.
It allows real-time clinical surveillance to rapidly inform and aid the UK’s emergency response. It reports weekly to the Health Protection Agency, but this frequency can be increased to once a day in emergencies.
When heavy flooding hits, it picks up spikes in problems such as gastroenteritis.
During 2009’s swine flu pandemic, another tool derived from Emis’s database, QFlu, was used to trace cases and spot trends.
QSurveillance can also pick up on more sinister symptoms, such as the fall-out from a dirty bomb.
“If you’ve got some kind of anthrax being released, some of the key symptoms of that will be skin lesions, boils and death,” said Emis chief executive Sean Riddell. “Some of these things, we can pick up.”
Emis, founded in 1987, pioneered computerising patients’ records. Emis’s founders, two North Yorkshire GPs, Dr Peter Sowerby and Dr David Stable, soon realised they had access to a wealth of data which could be used to improve healthcare.
Mr Riddell said this principle still lies at the heart of the company.
“They said, ‘Can we improve the health of patients through IT?,” he said. “They firmly believed it and proved that you could through the use of electronic health records.
“As soon as we had more than 30 per cent of the population of the UK on our software they said ‘Can we do something to improve the health of the nation?’ ”
Emis started by asking GPs if they were prepared to contribute to a research database to help improve health and spot trends.
About 670 practices responded – representing some 13 million patients – and enough to give a statistically sound picture of the UK’s immediate health trends.
Called QResearch, the database has records dating back to the early 1990s, making it one of the world’s biggest primary care databases. Data is anonymous, but contains socio-economic details of each patient’s postcode.
“We wanted it to be done on a not-for-profit basis; patients can opt out,” said Mr Riddell. “We also said anything created from the database must be made publicly available. We started to realise it could do more.”
Working with the University of Nottingham, Emis developed the QResearch database to create QSurveillance.
QResearch has also spawned a wide – and medically significant – range of other studies.
QRisk analyses risk of heart disease; QDScore predicts the risk of diabetes; QFracture analyses the risk of hip fracture.
The algorithms are open source – meaning researchers can use it to develop their own risk tools.
“The beauty of QResearch is it has the effects of deprivation and the effects of ethnicity,” said Mr Riddell.
Stock market-listed Emis, which makes its money computerising patients’ records, believes QResearch and its variants are vital to helping the nation’s health.
“If your core strategy as a company is to improve healthcare, and you’ve got the technology, and you can work with universities in partnership, you should be doing this,” said Mr Riddell. “It’s the doctors that have pushed it forward.”
The founding principle
Emis Group was established in 1987 in Egton near Whitby by two North Yorkshire GPs.
Dr Peter Sowerby and Dr David Stables launched Egton Medical Information Systems Ltd after beginning software development in 1984.
They had a founding principle that systems used by GP surgeries should improve patient care, and spotted an opportunity to develop and supply software to GPs to computerise patients’ electronic health records. Since then the company has grown organically, reinvesting its earnings to fund further growth, using a recurring licence model.
The company floated on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in March 2010.