How F1 wizardry that helps Jenson Button go faster is saving children in intensive care

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UPDATED:

23:31 GMT, 18 August 2012

Children in intensive care are being monitored by the same technology developed to analyse the performance of Formula 1 cars driven by Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

The computer software, which is being used in medicine for the first time, can alert doctors if a critically ill child starts to deteriorate far earlier than conventional systems used in NHS hospitals.

It learns what is normal for each child, making it responsive to even slight changes, and can take hundreds of measurements every minute to keep track of their condition.

Normally, the multi-million-pound technology – developed by McLaren’s electronics arm – is used on Formula 1 circuits to measure how well a supercar is performing.

Magdalena Singh and son Damian Birmingham Children's Hospital

Damian Singh, pictured with mother Magdalena, is one of the first children to be monitored by the new system at Birmingham Children's Hospital

Jenson Button podium

The technology that propels Jenson Button and McLaren team mate Lewis Hamilton to podium finishes is being used to monitor critically ill children in hospital

It also helps technicians to work out when a racing car needs a pit stop for an oil or tyre change.

But following a chance meeting between a McLaren electronics engineer and an NHS paediatric consultant, it has been used in Birmingham Children’s Hospital for a ground-breaking trial. Experts say very few changes to the software have been needed in order to convert it for use in intensive care wards.

The system – essentially a computer programme which can be installed on any IT system – allows doctors to get a constant picture of how a child is doing by comparing several different clinical measurements.

When used in Formula 1, around 130 different sensors fitted to the vehicles measure factors like speed, temperature and oil levels, and transmit them wirelessly to the database.

The system tells engineers if there is a problem and allows them to use predictive modelling to work out what to tweak to get the best performance. As many as 750 million readings can be taken during a 100-minute race.

On a hospital ward, medical sensors placed on a child’s body take measurements such as heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, oxygen levels and blood pressure, and send that information to the new database.

The software can handle and compare far more information than current systems. For example, it can take a heart electrocardiogram reading 125 times a minute, rather than once an hour.

Doctors have noticed that the system alerts them far earlier to signs that a child’s condition is set to deteriorate, by picking up on subtle changes not likely to be recognised by current surveillance systems.

It also allows doctors to see at a glance how all children are doing and who should receive priority.

Dr Heather Duncan, a consultant in paediatric intensive care at BCH, said: ‘It’s very exciting – a huge transformational leap. We have different parameters that are useful for us – like heart rate, breathing and oxygen levels coming in, rather than tyre temperatures and gear ratios – but otherwise it’s exactly the same.

‘Formula 1 engineers do lots of real-time monitoring during races and look at performance and modelling to see when they should change tyres and have pit stops. They’re predicting, essentially, which we don’t tend to do in healthcare.

‘Although we can always see what is happening at the bedside, we can’t see trends over time. This software lets us do this – and it could improve a child’s chances of survival.

‘At the moment it’s intuitive for a racing engineer but less so for clinicians. For example, breathing rate kept coming up as “revs per minute”. So there’s some tweaking to do.’

The software was originally developed by McLaren Electronics and is used across Formula 1.

McLaren has donated it to BCH for the trial, but plans to commercialise it for use across the NHS.

Damian Singh, four, was monitored using the software after he had surgery at BCH to correct a congenital heart defect.

His mother, Magdalena, 31, from Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, said: ‘I think that this is really good if it means it can help children like Damian and can adapt to his needs.

Lewis Hamilton McLaren

McLaren has donated its monitoring technology for the groundbreaking trial to Birmingham Children's Hospital. The software usually tracks Lewis Hamilton, pictured, and Jenson Button round a grand prix circuit to boost their performance

‘It’s reassuring, and means that I can see the numbers and see what’s normal for him, so I feel like I’m learning too.

‘Damian loves the computer racing game Mario Kart, so he would probably approve.’

BCH is seeking about 2million to continue the trial and plans to extend it across the hospital.

Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronics, said: ‘It’s been really interesting for our engineers to work alongside doctors at BCH.

‘If we’re able to do something differently to make health care better then we’d welcome that.

‘We would love to be able to offer it to NHS hospitals around the country.’