As numerous wise commentators have observed – the ability to use information is a crucial element in improving care in the health service. As a consequence, there is a growing interest in new information systems, information management, big data and all things digital.  All this is very laudable but there is one piece of the equation that we are in danger of missing – do we have enough analysts? That is the people with the skills to make sense of the increasing mountains of data and generate useful and actionable information?  

As our report Understanding analytical capability in health care noted, a skilled workforce that is able to manipulate, analyse and interpret data is essential for a modern health care system. However, there is a widely acknowledged problem that health services often cannot access the right level of skilled analysts and that it also needs to use the analysts it does have better, and develop their skills and capabilities.

At the Health Foundation we have been developing our own in house analytical capability. And we recognise that to make the most of new analytical methods and approaches we also need to promote analytical capability elsewhere in the health service. 

One of the problems identified by analysts themselves is that they are often isolated within organisations, and struggle to learn and develop through collaboration with their peers. Networks provide a forum for cooperation between analysts, allowing them to share and develop analytical skills. So we have been helping the Association for Professional Healthcare Analysts to extend its national networks. We have also been working with the UK Network for Modelling and Simulation in Healthcare (MASHnet) on a project known as PLETHORA, which aims to develop an action plan for the effective use of advanced analytic research methods to improve the delivery of health and care services in the UK.

More recently in July, we opened a call for our Advancing Applied Analytics programme, which was aimed at care providers or commissioners and intended to support projects that improved analytical capability. Rather than asking applicants to develop novel statistical methods, or improve information management and technology, our focus is on the people, skills and tools required to apply these new ideas in practice to support decision making for better care and population health. We want to create a portfolio of projects that could change how analysis is used and perceived – demonstrating to senior managers across the country, the importance and potential of good quality analysis.

The response to the programme exceeded our expectations both in terms of the quantity and quality of applications. Applications were received from NHS provider trusts, clinical commissioning groups, commissioning support units, and regional support agencies, district and county councils and voluntary sector providers. They covered a range of topics including specific training and development programmes, local or national networks and the creation of some information tools. We also sought to include analysts to support wider preventive health initiatives and we have been pleased to see a number of applications from local councils or for area-based analyses with a sustainability and transformation plan area wide focus.

We are currently in the process of selecting the first projects – we are hoping to add to these with future rounds. It has been difficult to select a small number of projects for funding when we have had such a good range of applications. Our impression is that the analytical community recognised the need for such awards targeted at applied analytics, an area where there are relatively few external funding streams that can help catalyse change. As a result, there has been widespread enthusiasm for the call, with many national leaders volunteering to promote it within their networks.

We hope that these projects can not only help individual organisations or areas make incremental and sustained change – but can also work together in broader communities that promote the value and benefits of better analysis. It is still early days but the initial signs are positive.

Martin Bardsley is Senior Fellow in the Data Analytics team at the Health Foundation.

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