SEPA publication on data visualisation tool – Pharmaceuticals in the Water Environment

SEPA is a steering group member in the award-winning pioneering partnership One Health Breakthrough Partnership (OHBP) – a group of researchers, academics, water providers and regulators, and public health specialists from organisations across Scotland working together to reduce pharmaceutical pollution in the environment through sustainable One Health innovation.

SEPA works with several key stakeholders and steering group partners; NHS Highland, Scottish Water, the Environmental Research Institute – University of the Highlands and Islands (ERI-UHI) and Scotland’s Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW) to improve the environmental management of pharmaceuticals and
environmental impact of healthcare practices. The partners recognise that human health and environmental health are closely interconnected, and that water quality is central to the well-being of both.

Earlier this year SEPA joined other OHBP partners to create Pharmaceuticals in the Water Environment – a data visualisation tool which includes data on medicines detected in the Scottish water environment and NHS Scotland prescribing data. The tool was designed to help develop a better understanding of the link between
medicine use and pharmaceutical pollution in the environment. We spoke to some of the people involved:

Tell us about the tool – what does it enable us to do?

The tool helps us to understand which pharmaceuticals are being found where and in what concentrations and whether they are above the predicted no effect concentrations (PNECs) meaning that we can then prioritise them for upstream action. We are interested to see whether there is a correlation between how much is prescribed at certain locations and what concentrations are being found in the water matrices nearby.”

Sharon Pfleger, NHS Highland

As more stakeholders become aware of the importance of biodiversity loss, this tool will allow users to understand the scale of environmental contamination in their area. Users may range from those tasked with prescribing, recommending which medicines to prescribe, academics and those with an interest in environmental sustainability issues.” 

Barry Melia, Public Health Scotland

How was it created?

We co-ordinated technical input from across the partners during the tool development.  This included working with the partners to ensure we had all the relevant monitoring and sampling information, in addition to public health prescribing data to provide Informatics with the data that sits behind the tool.

Informatics – and specifically Lauren Fuller who ultimately developed the tool – were integral to our initial discussions, and without them we probably wouldn’t have this tool at all! We also worked with SEPA’s legal team to ensure data sharing and other legal considerations were factored into the tool development, and with SEPA comms colleagues for strategic advice and information about how to effectively engage with relevant partners and stakeholders, promote the tool and manage our reputational risk. It was particularly challenging as we started to coordinate this work after the cyber-attack.”

Lindsey Green & Fiona Whyte, Innovation Team, SEPA

How did the tool evolve? Were there any barriers in the process?

The project was requested by partners in October 2019 at the CREW Project Request meeting and following a period of engagement with Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS)/OHBP a final specification was agreed. During this time there was significant activity in the background between the CREW (Hutton) and the organisations that supplied data for the tool as a complex process of developing a Data Sharing Agreement unfolded. CREW responded to the changing needs of the partnership until a satisfactory outcome was achieved for all parties to use data collated in the CREW baseline project and helped pave the way for the SEPA visualisation tool.” 

Rachel Helliwell, Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW)

The tool took one year to develop as I was working on it whilst also being involved in other projects. I started by making a tool using just the environmental sample data from the baseline CREW report, but the OHBP team quickly realised that there would be a huge benefit in also presenting prescribing data. This second stage of development required accessing and presenting the prescribing data from Public Health Scotland. During this stage we also started to explore the possibility of linking the environmental sample data and the prescribing data within Scottish Water operational areas. This required gathering a large amount of supporting data, including spatial data so that the sample and prescription data could be spatially linked and represented on maps.

We faced a number of challenges with the prescribing data. There is a huge amount of information available and the first task was identifying which of the pharmaceutical compounds were the relevant ones to extract from the huge number available, which meant deciphering the British National Formulary, and bringing together the medical and environmental expertise of the team to understand which pharmaceuticals could be linked to the compounds sampled in the environment.”

Lauren Fuller, Informatics, SEPA

Since the launch of the tool, how have you/your colleagues been using it?

I have used it for promoting the work of the OHBP, raising awareness of the issue of pharma in the environment and how we can begin to understand/address it, and recently as a resource for development of a (successful) cross-organisational UKRI grant proposal to develop, for the first time in the UK, a framework for an eco-directed formulary that will incorporate environmental data on medicines into the prescribing process, alongside clinical and cost effectiveness. The research team from ERI (with OHBP members) will interrogate the tool to inform on environmental occurrence and risk of pharmaceuticals in the Scottish water environment.”

Lydia Niemi, Environmental Research Institute, University of Highlands and Islands

Benefits of using the tool? 

The tool allows quick access to the available environmental and prescription data.  It’s great as it can be regularly updated with results and environmental standards as they become available making it a live source of information.  Searches can be carried out and then data exported to excel for further analysis.”

Bess Homer, Scottish Water

What if people have questions or feedback about using the tool?

If you have feedback about the tool or have any suggestions for improvements you might like in the future, please contact Lindsey Green or Fiona Whyte in Innovation and Lauren Fuller or Graeme Cameron in Informatics.  If you or colleagues have new monitoring data to add to the tool, then please provide it to Informatics for inclusion. This ensures that the tool contains as much data as possible and is regularly

The Environmental Research Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (ERI), NHS Highland, Scottish Water, SEPA and the Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW) form the OHBP steering group. Find out more about One Health Breakthrough Partnership (OHBP)