The McLaren Technology Group is known for its exploits in Formula 1, having designed the systems that have sent a fistful of championships to Woking, England. But the organisation is now applying its problem-solving know-how to keeping hospital patients as healthy as McLaren keeps its racing machines.

McLaren Applied Technologies, a company subsidiary that leverages data-analysis skills developed through racing, has signed an agreement with Oxford University Hospitals to provide doctors with decision support – specifically around analysis of data that might maximize patients’ opportunities for positive treatment outcomes.

The effort begins, as so many automotive endeavours do, at the racetrack.

As an illustration of McLaren’s successful adaptation to circumstances, it points to its use of a simulator when ex-team driver Lewis Hamilton suffered a tire puncture during the 2008 Monaco Grand Prix. The simulator ran in real time, so when the team encountered the setback, the simulator was leveraged to choose the proper type of tire for Hamilton’s car – a seemingly mundane task that could have a very real impact on Hamilton’s prospects for victory. That simulation – combined with Hamilton’s deft driving – obviated the need for a later pit stop, positioning Hamilton for his eventual race win.

That is the kind of adaptation to adversity that doctors and patients both work towards in medicine. “We do have a large number of unmet needs,” explains Freddie Hamdy, head of the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences at Oxford. “The methods we use are very much behind both the motoring industry and airline pilots as well.”

Applying McLaren’s simulator to medical situations has the potential to revolutionise health care, says Hamdy. “This is going to be a complete paradigm shift in how we implement new techniques,” he says.  “For me, [McLaren’s simulator] was a complete revelation.”

Racing places a tremendous burden on an organisation with respect to its allocation of resources, notes Dr Caroline Hargrove, director of performance at McLaren Applied Technologies, as races are held at regular intervals without regard to teams’ preparedness. McLaren’s historical consistency “came from making our Formula 1 activities as streamlined as possible,” she says. “We were taking on new information and taking the best course of action. This could apply in the health care and hospital environment where scarce resources need to be applied as efficiently as possible.”

McLaren has applied this thinking to air traffic control at London’s Heathrow airport, where newfound efficiencies brought a 19% increase in capacity, says Hargrove. “If we did this in the medical world, it would have a significant cost saving attached to it.”

Indeed, Oxford’s Hamdy says that seeking efficiency advice from a racing team’s tech subsidiary is largely motivated by budgetary concerns. “Both in terms of the quality of care that can be delivered and the savings, [it] can be absolutely momentous,” he says.

And those speedy pit stops that are a McLaren speciality? They are precision-choreographed to eliminate any movement that could be considered extraneous. GlaxoSmithKline, the health- and pharmaceutical-product conglomerate, struggled with a 39-minute changeover of its toothpaste manufacturing line when switching between brands such as AquaFresh and Sensodyne. Analysis by McLaren Applied Technologies slashed that changeover time to just 15 minutes, letting the company fill an additional 6.7m tubes of toothpaste every year. In practice, however, GlaxoSmithKline uses the time saved to switch production streams more often – and more easily – as market demand dictates.

The company is also using McLaren’s data collection sensors in clinical trials for experimental treatments for respiratory ailments, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Pursuing workplace efficiencies can take on much more intimate, tactile forms as well. McLaren tech is helping Oxford doctors to monitor patients’ progress after treatment. “We put sensors on people,” Hargrove says, noting that continuous, accurate data collection can be superior to relying on patients’ anecdotal recollections. “We get a much better objective feel for the level of activity, its intensity, and how well they sleep,” she says. “That gives us a much better picture of how well that person is.”

Such granular monitoring is routine for racing cars, but not for patients. “You do this to machines and we are not doing this to humans,” Hargrove marvelled. “You can see whether surgeries work well and their impact on peoples’ lives.”

The method can be applied pre-operatively to determine patients’ suitability for surgery, Hamdy says. “Our patient population is aging, and we are doing things now to 70-year-olds, 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds that we didn’t do 20 years ago,” he says. Instrumenting surgical candidates beforehand, he contends, will give doctors a clearer idea of their suitability for procedures.

Together with the post-operative monitoring, this data collection could help reduce the guesswork in medicine. “We are going to be able to predict much more accurately the long-term impact of the intervention,” Hamdy says.

Developing scenarios that predict a victorious outcome is old hat for McLaren. As for Oxford, such victories would be even sweeter when patients’ lives are the reward.

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