New research could predict deaths based on shopping habits

Research from Nottingham University Business School is one step closer to helping to predict deaths from respiratory diseases by analysing the shopping habits of customers in local authority areas across England.

Newly published research in Nature Communications, funded by the UKRI/EPSRC, and supported by the NHS and a UK high street retailer, explored the connection between the purchase of non-prescription medications, from cough remedies to pain relief, that are used to treat respiratory illnesses, and registered deaths from those diseases.

Looking at over two billion records of sales from March 2016 to March 2020, supplied by the UK high street retailer, researchers at the University of Nottingham, led by Elizabeth Dolan and Dr James Goulding at NUBS, used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to predict the deaths in 314 local authority areas across England.

The team found that in using the shopping data from local authority areas, predictions were often a lot more accurate than models that relied primarily on seasonal trends and sociodemographic factors such as poverty, housing quality, age and the size of population.

Further to this, academics found that they could accurately predict deaths from respiratory diseases over 17 days in advance using the data they analysed.

Using these findings, it is hoped that future developments in this area could help identify those most at risk of death from respiratory conditions, support the NHS and help highlight the most at-risk communities and environmental changes that could exacerbate chronic lung conditions.

Elizabeth Dolan, a PhD candidate at the Horizon CDT and a member of Nottingham University Business School, said: “Our research shows that using sales data, such as rising cough medicine purchases, significantly improves predictions of deaths from respiratory disease. This highlights the urgent need to make this practical data source more accessible for medical research.

“It could provide healthcare providers an invaluable tool to better manage services and plan more effectively, especially as we now have COVID-19 to cope with alongside the other causes of respiratory disease.”

The full research paper is available here.