James Boyd

Professor James Boyd

James Boyd speaks to us as part of our Digital Health Leaders series. The full article is available here.

How did you get started in the digital health space?

I worked for the National Health Service in Scotland for over 20 years, in the information headquarters as an epidemiologist and statistician, so I’ve always been using electronic health data. I worked in a number of areas within the NHS and was involved in setting up the national benchmarking and clinical outcomes programs using some of the linked data assets. Scotland was one of the first places to try to integrate different health datasets together to answer different health related research questions. 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to move to Australia, to Curtin University in Western Australia.

At Curtin University I was doing a number of things related to data linkage, including developing technology that allows us to integrate Australian health and health related datasets along with technology to improve how we analyse that information; how you get the best out of that information once you’ve brought it together. I’ve been in Victoria for six months in a brand-new role at La Trobe University, developing our capabilities in the digital health space, extending what has been done in the past and trying to think of some of the other ways that we can develop new technology and how we can use the resulting information to answer complex questions.

What was the attraction of the role at La Trobe University?

La Trobe are very keen to develop the digital health area and have been very supportive. We’ve got a small team developing a new master’s course, coming early next year, around digital health and we’re continuing to develop research areas across the university.

As digital health spans a number of areas across the university, Kevin (Yap) and myself have been working with public health, the business school, the computing school and cyber security whilst putting together the master’s course. There have been a lot of opportunities to come together and exploit expertise across the university. So, whilst it comes under that digital health label, we have had the opportunity to work across the university which has been exciting. The other area Kevin is developing is around gamification for teaching and learning; bringing games and game technology to the teaching elements of the course – a very innovative approach.

How is the University developing the digital health division?

We’ve come up with a unique master’s course which I think encapsulates the broad nature of digital health. What we’re trying to do is develop a core set of digital health competencies which allow people to understand what digital health is and then allow them to specialise into 4 areas. The first is health data analytics and visualisation which provide knowledge and skill around big data, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and how you can mine health information and interrogate complex datasets.  The second is applied e-health, which provides students with knowledge and skills in system thinking, leadership and management of e-health systems, and quality and safety management in healthcare organisations.

The third is telehealth and the way we can use virtual healthcare; it’s about new technologies that can be used to deliver healthcare in different ways. The last is something called Technopreneurship. This develops the skills people need if they want to get into the business of developing health technology or interventions and putting them into the marketplace. As you can see the course covers a lot of aspects in collaboration with various departments within the university.

Part of my role is engagement with health organisations. Talking to a number of the hospitals and health providers and trying to understand what their challenges are and how we can work with them to develop solutions.

I’m also part of the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre whose mission is to improve the quality of healthcare for all, through evidence. The CRC has an industry focus, which means that all questions come from industry which makes research translation a priority. As these industry and university partnerships develop solutions to research problems then it’s implemented back into industry to resolve the issue.

How do you see digital healthcare space developing in the future?

To be able to understand the health systems better, we need to be able to join up information, to have the complete story about an individual’s journey through the health service. The ability to join together a person contacts with their GP and then be able to use that to inform how their journey in the health system progresses, whether there is a trip to hospital or a contact with community services; allows us a better understanding of a person’s journey through the health system and how we can improve these services.

If we can achieve a joined-up approach to data, then that’s the starting point for a lot of different types of research. If we can also incorporate new technology like wearable devices to collect information about a person’s exercise or their diet or blood pressure on a routine basis it will supplement the data we already have.

What is the biggest difference between the UK and Australian healthcare systems?

I didn’t know what to expect coming over to Australia, but the health care systems are very similar and have a lot of the same challenges. I think the biggest difference in Australia compared to Scotland is around funding, having healthcare funded by different levels of government and trying to coordinate that for the whole population is a challenge.

Who would you say has inspired you the most in your career?

I’ve had the chance to work with some clever individuals who have managed to bring the best out in the whole team. Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who have a good knowledge of the health system, the data and the technology that goes along with delivering health care, and who were willing to share that expertise.

What has been your most rewarding job so far in your career?

This role, being at the start of something new has been great. It’s not often you get the chance to shape where an organisation is going with a new area.

What would be your advice be to aspiring leaders?

Academia is not an easy role, funding is not always guaranteed but if you do the right things and put yourself out there, there will be opportunities. It’s about getting good experience as well.

I think it’s important that research and teaching within a university works together to take developments in research and then feed that back into the teaching, so that students understand the changing health landscape.

Find out more about Professor James Boyd and his work at La Trobe University here.

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