Today we are launching our search for partners to join the Networked Data Lab, a new Health Foundation investment to accelerate the use of data to improve health and health care.

The challenge ahead

Sometimes the challenges facing our health and society seem overwhelming; from the growing complexity of our health and care needs, to the stubborn inequalities in health, and the rapid transformation of our health system and society by new technologies. Taken with the often-labyrinthine health and care systems, it can be hard to understand how we could start to improve things. 

While data can’t fix everything, they can help us understand these challenges better by painting a picture of what is happening at a system and population level, leading to discoveries about how we might be able to tackle some big problems. 

At the Health Foundation, we are working to ensure that everyone’s health and care benefits from the advances in analytics. We’ve used linked datasets to understand pressing problems, like the rising number of patients living with multiple conditions, and carried out innovative data linkage to understand the impact of living alone on older people’s use of emergency care. From our experience, we know how valuable this sort of work can be in helping decision makers improve the quality of care for patients. 

Why we need to collaborate

But, we know that we can only do so much on our own. Some of this is for practical reasons. While the NHS could have great data, the uncomfortable truth is that we don’t yet have a dataset that you could use to follow a patient through all the health care services they encounter – let alone social care. 

To take a concrete example, if we wanted to understand the care that a young person with a severe mental health condition receives, right now we don’t have national data that we could use to describe the care they seek or receive from their GP, their attendance at A&E and their use of specialist mental health services. While data exist on most of this treatment and activity, the information is often not joined up between sectors or available at a health system level, making it hard to take a big picture look at how that young person’s care could be improved. 

We know that in some areas across the country, linked datasets are being assembled that analysts are using to understand and address the health needs of their population. But, even when data are available, the problems are simply too big, and too numerous to tackle alone. 

We could get further if we tackled complex issues together. National health care leaders could also get a better big picture understanding of what could be done to improve care if we synthesised findings from linked datasets across multiple areas. Of course, to get this right, we need to work closely with clinicians, senior decision makers, patients and the public to make sure we are prioritising the right issues and interpreting the findings correctly. 

That’s why we are launching our search for partners to join our Networked Data Lab. 

What impact will this have?

If we do this successfully, the Networked Data Lab could produce some really important insights to help us improve quality of care. For example:

  • Establishing the health needs of older people using social care services, highlighting opportunities for enhanced support, and identifying any inequalities in care. This could help identify which older people could benefit from early intervention to reduce emergency admissions.
  • Deepening our understanding of the drivers of emergency attendances and admissions for young people living with severe mental illness and providing information on gaps in care. This would improve our understanding of any inequalities in access and outcomes, allowing decision makers to prioritise care to those in greatest need.

What will the Networked Data Lab do?

The Networked Data Lab will create a national community of analysts across the UK, with in-person and virtual links, solving problems together. 

Working with a team at the Health Foundation, analysts at partner sites will use the same statistical code, and will collaboratively develop analysis plans to interrogate linked health and care datasets. The Health Foundation team will provide support and leadership on project management, design of analysis, shared statistical programming, and synthesis of findings. We’ll also share learning to achieve impact at national and local level.

To be able to work across multiple datasets the Networked Data Lab team will put a lot of work into data stewardship and harmonisation. Its work will also create practical analytical tools, to help analysts working on similar health and care data to go further, faster. 

Who are we looking for?

We are inviting teams from areas across the UK who have already developed linked datasets that incorporate data from the different providers of health and care services including GPs, hospitals and local authorities. Our partners should be embedded in their health and care service, and already be using their analysis and data to inform decision making. 

We also want to work with partners who are committed, like us, to sharing their code and findings openly, and working with patients and the public. Finally, this project is a collaboration and we want to involve partners who are committed to working on common problems and finding solutions that will help to improve health and care in the future.

Find out more

Would you like to get involved? Find out more about the Networked Data Lab and how potential partners can apply.


Sarah Deeny (@sarahdeeny) is Assistant Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation.

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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