National Health Service England's Tim Kelsey tells a story of the human cost of mismanaging data.
Some years ago a doctor raised the alarm about a consultant who was ignoring cancer patients referred for treatment: Kelsey said the subsequent inquiry determined the specialist had probably shortened the lives of at least 11 women by not seeing them when he was supposed to.
"The thing that struck me about that tragedy was the enormous human cost that this guy's negligence had caused. But more than that, this could have been stopped almost before it started if the local hospital had actually used the data it had to do something as simple as checking whether or not doctors were seeing their patients," NHS England director for patients and information Kelsey told the WANdisco Big Data Breakfast in London yesterday.
"That is a long way away from the kind of algorithmic excitement over calculating outcomes in healthcare - just incredibly basic manipulation of this data would have saved lives in this case.
"I just couldn't believe the NHS was flying blind, and as I dug into it more, I began to realise that no doctor had the faintest idea of whether they were harming patients and the patients had literally no transparency over the quality of local services."
Kelsey left his job as news editor for the Sunday Times newspaper and set up a private firm, Dr Foster, to try to offer the public greater insights into the running of the NHS. The company analysed the huge amounts of data produced by the service and used it to generate tables showing death rates by individual hospital and individual doctors.
Today, Kelsey is in charge of devising ways to let doctors and patients tap into the vast NHS datasets to improve national healthcare.
2015 could be a major year for big data in the NHS. This year the government will relaunch care.data, a scheme to allow patient records to be used to improve health services and shared for research purposes.
The programme was put on hold last year after privacy concerns over what the patient data might be used for and where it might end up.
Kelsey acknowledged these concerns had been legitimate and said the new care.data programme would offer "proper legal safeguards" for patient record data.