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Employing Data Analytics to inform the development of innovative Cost-Effectiveness Cancer Screening Models in the COVID-19 era

PhD project title

Employing Data Analytics to inform the development of innovative Cost-Effectiveness Cancer Screening Models in the COVID-19 era


Outline description, including interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimensions (300 words max)

Cancer screening is a critical component of our armamentarium against cancer, facilitating identification of citizens at risk of developing the disease at the earliest stage, thus informing effective health management of the newly-identified patient when cancer is at its most vulnerable. However, cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) must be included in any screening model, to ensure the best use of often-limited resources and deliver sustainable solutions. Striving for optimal health resource utilisation is particularly relevant in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, with COVID-19-repurposing of our health service leading to unintended de-prioritisation of non-COVID-related activities, including cancer screening. Developing robust COVID-era cancer screening requires new, more precise data-enabled modelling approaches, which will have relevance locally, nationally and globally.

Embedded within an interdisciplinary intersectoral team comprising researchers from Schools of Mathematics and Physics (SMP) (Lamrock), Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences (SMDBS) (Lawler, McFerran), the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency(PHA) (Owen), regional clinical pathology network (Loughrey) and involving collaborators in London (Turnbull), Dublin (O’Mahony) and Rotterdam (Lansdorp-Vogelaar), the doctoral student will employ advanced machine/deep learning and CEA methodologies to develop a new precision modelling approach to cancer screening.

The project provides unrivalled opportunities for an ambitious student to thrive in an interdisciplinary, intersectoral milieu by drawing on the proven expertise of the individual team members in big data analytics, cancer systems/cancer screening research (McFerran & Lawler, BMJ 2020), health economics analysis and health-service planning.

This nurturing environment will empower the student to build/apply innovative robust models that investigate the complex interplay between cancer development, cancer screening methodologies, health economics and health service implementation, evaluated within several scenarios that mimic different degrees of the adverse impact of COVID-19 on cancer screening, This iterative research will permit the derivation of the most optimal robust model for cost-effective cancer screening, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Key words/descriptors



Data Analytics; Cancer; Screening; Health Economics; Inequalities, Decision Modelling, Interdisciplinary, intersectoral research

Fit to CITI-GENS theme(s)

The Innovation Pillar of the Belfast Region City Deal emphasises four key domains – Information Technology, Health and Life Sciences, Advanced Manufacturing and Creative Industries. This project aligns to the first two of these four themes and would resonate with both the Global Innovation Institute (GII) and the Institute for Research Excellence in Advanced Clinical Healthcare (iREACH) capital builds that will deliver these two strands of the overarching Innovation Pillar. The data analytics/Artificial Intelligence aspect of the project positions itself comfortably within the “secure connected intelligence” bedrock that underpins GII, while the cancer screening, health economics and health services research project themes are well aligned both with iREACH’s ambition to drive innovative health and life sciences research with impact and GII’s One Health Agenda. Emphasising the interdisciplinary nature of the research, this interfaculty project will involve a primary supervisor who is a lecturer in Data Analytics (SMP), with extensive experience in Health Economic Modelling. The second supervisor is a Professor in Digital Health (SMDBS), an Associate Director of Health Data Research Wales-Northern Ireland, and Scientific Director of the UK’s Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, with an international reputation in employing data to drive research and innovation in the health/life sciences sector.  These two supervisors have very different core expertise, which they have brought together in a complementary innovative interdisciplinary project. The third supervisor is from the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, providing a clear intersectoral pathway to deliver healthcare impact from the project.  Additional support for this project includes Dr Maurice Loughrey, Consultant Histopathologist in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and Dr Ethna McFerran, Cancer Health Economics Research Fellow at QUB.  



Supervisor Information



First Supervisor: Dr Felicity Lamrock                                                          School: Mathematics and Physics

Second Supervisor: Professor Mark Lawler                                              School: Medicine, Dentistry, Biomedical Sciences

Third Supervisor: Dr Tracy Owen                                                               Company: Public Health Agency

Name of non-HEI partner(s)

Public Health Agency, Cancer Screening Program – Dr Tracy Owen


Contribution of non-HEI partner(s) to the project:





Specialist training regarding data acquisition and understanding of the data will be provided by the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency (PHA).

The PHA was established in 2009 and is a multi-disciplinary, multi-professional body with a strong regional and local presence. They were set up to provide a renewed and enhanced focus on public health and wellbeing by bringing together a wide range of public health functions under one organisation. The PHA create a better inter-sectoral working, including enhanced partnership arrangements with local government, to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and reduce health inequalities.

The PHA has responsibility for commissioning, coordinating and quality assuring population screening programmes in Northern Ireland. The PHA operates the following screening programmes: abdominal aortic aneurysm screening, antenatal screening, breast screening, bowel cancer screening, cervical cancer screening, diabetic retinopathy screening, new-born screening, and the farm families health checks programme.

The Fellow will have a placement opportunity during the project on the premises of the PHA whereby they will be able to more clearly understand the wider impact, importance, and understanding of cancer screening and its application not just for the Northern Irish population, but on an international level. An additional placement opportunity with Dr Maurice Loughrey, who leads the Northern Ireland Bowel Screening Programme will enhance the knowledge and expertise of the PhD student.

Research centre / School

Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research