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SmartHealth Q&A with > Dr Frank O’Donnell, Public Sector Lead, Microsoft Ireland

by | Jul 12, 2022

Dr Frank O’Donnell leads the public sector business for Microsoft Ireland focusing on health, education and government sectors across the island of Ireland. O’Donnell joined Microsoft from senior roles in management consulting to focus on transforming business to drive more strategic engagement with customers and partners, as well as securing a position as a trusted partner in digital transformation. With over 20 years’ experience across the education and skills, health and economic development areas in Ireland, the UK and the Middle East, O’Donnell has worked within the public sector as a senior director and partner in a number of high-profile management consulting firms. His work has been focused on the development of strategy and policy for the transformation of government and public services using technology. He holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, as well as an MSc and BTech Degree.

How does health innovation surprise you?

Healthcare and medicine have come such a long way from the discovery of antibiotics, curing diseases and viruses, to offering minimally invasive surgeries. We only have to look to the last two years at how science and technology has helped us weather a global pandemic.

We’re seeing more health organisations invest in modalities of care, such as virtual visits with satisfaction levels of 80 per cent according to recent surveys, and there has been rapid adoption particularly in the early days of Covid-19. The impact has, in a lot of instances, been profound. Given that health and medical innovation literally saves lives, I still find it baffling that it often remains on the periphery of conversations around health reform and transformation, and it’s not funded by governments in line with the value it returns.

Not just in Ireland, but globally, we’re still talking about building hospitals, additional bed capacity, workforce issues but not including a focus on health and medical innovation and the impact it can have within that discussion.

What tech has made the greatest impact?

Cloud computing has had the greatest impact in recent years and we remain at the early stages of what is possible on this platform. This has been evident through the impact on Irish healthcare in recent times in relation to the HSE’s management and response to Covid-19.

The Microsoft Cloud provides trusted and integrated capabilities which, in this case, enhances patient engagement, empowers health team collaboration, and improves clinical and operational insights. It enabled the HSE for the first time, to get real time data about confirmed cases of Covid-19, admissions and bed occupancies. This without doubt helped the HSE plan and deal with the number of cases that fluctuated during that time.

Who is impressing you right now?

I’m impressed at an overall level with the degree of innovation and technology adoption right across the sector. However, Belfast Health & Social Care Trust’s Regional Molecular Diagnostics Service is doing some incredible work in geonomics, an initiative that can have transformative impact on the delivery of care.

It’s an important and evolving area, enabling a more accurate diagnosis of disease and a more personalised treatment, which results in better
patient outcomes. By using cloud technology, the team has been able to significantly improve the delivery of diagnostic services and ability to handle large genomic datasets. It has also allowed them to scale and accelerate the service for patients.

With this technology, scientists can use next generation sequencing (NGS) to determine the personal and family risk of developing an inherited form of cancer, such as breast cancer, and patients can be prescribed appropriate treatment that will have the best outcome for their genetic composition.

NGS has therefore now become an essential means for screening cancer susceptibility genes improving the detection of variants and the speed and efficiency of testing for the benefit of cancer patients and their families across Northern Ireland. Additionally, because it’s based on a cloud platform, it can be futureproofed, easily scaled and is inherently agile. I was delighted to see Regional Molecular Diagnostics Service win ‘Innovative Use of Technology’ at the HSC NI awards in May. It’s a fantastic example of when a healthcare service and academia collaborate to deliver a groundbreaking service to citizens.

What transformations are yet to be explored?

We are still at the early stages of potential for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare and the promise of AI truly acting as an enabler of better clinical and operational decisions. To achieve this, we must build on a strong platform of data and there is a real opportunity to develop a healthcare system that is truly informed by data, in real time.

To get to that point, we need to address some of the nontechnical as well as technical barriers to sharing of data, integration across departments and drive a culture from the top that really values data as a strategic asset. Currently healthcare systems are limited in their ability to improve because of lack of insights. You can’t improve what you can’t see.

Fast forward five years >>>

The connection between patients, care teams and data has been fundamental to delivering the best possible care and outcomes. We have seen the value of real-time, accurate data during Covid, supporting senior level decision makers in the day-to-day management of the crisis, and there is a clear case to extend this across the healthcare. My hope that in five years, is that data driven insights informs our healthcare system, both from a clinical and operational perspective, truly delivering better outcomes with a positive impact on cost of care

Within Ireland, the area of community health is one that has huge potential given Government investment and improving capacity in that area will address some of the demand on the acute system. The current technology landscape in that area is very limited and there is potential to leapfrog to a highly technology enabled environment for care teams and patients, without the challenge of legacy technical debt.

Additionally, I see the skills of clinicians and other healthcare professionals evolving, as more people need to understand the technology that
is driving change. We see much stronger technology adoption and positive impacts where healthcare professionals understand the capability
and potential of technology.

We need to accelerate this change and to support this, professionals need to be upskilled to enable the wider adoption of technology to ultimate improve the lives of citizens and patients.

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