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We’ve been on quite a journey over the last few years, exploring the contribution that data analytics can make towards better health and care. We’ve built a reputation as experts in the field, and produced some ground breaking new work that has shaped the development of health services across the UK, not to mention some really important partnerships and all the work we’ve done to build analytical capability in the health and care system. 

And now we want to go one step further. Through our new Data Analytics for Better Health strategy, we are broadening the scope of our work to help create a future where everyone’s health and care benefits from analytics and data-driven technology. 

Let me tell you why we think this is so important.

The tech revolution – for good and for bad

Rapid innovation in the use of analytics and data-driven technology (including artificial intelligence) is shaping almost every aspect of our daily lives. From personalised fitness trackers, to the algorithms feeding us information on social media, and how decisions about public services are made, these technologies also have an impact on our health – for good and for bad.

The changes brought about by these technologies are no less impactful within health services. Data are being used to drive innovation in ways that can revolutionise health care, helping us to detect disease much earlier, move care closer to home, and encourage health promoting behaviours. The same technology also has the potential to exacerbate health inequalities, decrease social connectedness, and increase demand on an overstretched health and social care system. 

Ensuring the impacts are positive

With huge investment from big industry, the pace of change is fast. We have already seen enormous impact, and can expect this to accelerate as these technologies are used ever more widely by the general public and in health and social care over the coming years. The key question is: how can we make sure the impacts are positive, so that everyone’s health and care benefits? 

The government wants to put the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence (AI) and data revolution, to improve health outcomes as well as stimulate economic growth. The UK’s Industrial Strategy has a clear focus on leveraging our health data as part of this. With the creation of NHSX and a Department of Health and Social Care that sees technology as a priority, the landscape is changing, which means despite the potential risks there are also exciting opportunities to strengthen the role of data and the technologies it powers.

Our vision

Our vision is for a future where everyone’s health and care benefits from analytics and data-driven technology. Here’s what this might look like and some of the things that need to happen to get us there:

1.    A data and technology ecosystem that innovates in response to UK health and care priorities 

Technological innovation should be focused on addressing the biggest challenges facing health and health care. To achieve this, innovators in both the public and commercial sectors need a good understanding about what these challenges are, and what the solutions might be. Leaders in the health and social care system, and across government, need to use their roles as purchasers and regulators to make sure innovation responds to their health priorities. 

2.    Analytics and data-driven technology are used to help reduce health inequalities

We know that data-driven technologies have the potential to unintentionally perpetuate existing inequalities in society and health. Whether due to biased algorithms, or unequal access to technology, it can mean that those most in need are excluded from essential services. We must address these problems, and ensure investment in new technologies benefits deprived communities. 

3.    Effective monitoring of the impact of analytics and data-driven technology on health, and the right regulation

There is huge uncertainty about the impact of data-driven technologies on health and in health care. A new evaluation and monitoring approach is needed to actively monitor these technologies (both those used inside and outside the formal health and care system) so that we are aware of positive or negative impact on health and can respond. Regulators must find a balance between protecting the public and public services, while making the regulatory system navigable for innovators developing data-driven technology. 

4.    The potential value of data for health and care is realised

As a universal health system, the NHS should have the best health data in the world. However, currently data sets are fragmented and incomplete, offering only a partial view of the health and experiences of individuals. Social care data are underdeveloped. The system needs to develop skills and capacity to ensure the NHS (and therefore patients) obtains the right value from any commercial data sharing. Data outside of the health and care system can also be valuable, for example data held by social media or health technology companies, so we will need to broker new kinds of data sharing. We also need to build public trust for the use of data. 

5.    A flourishing, and responsible, innovation ecosystem 

While incredible innovation is happening in the UK, there are also weaknesses in our innovation ecosystem. Good practice is underdeveloped in analytics and data-driven technology. Too few projects are conducted with genuine involvement from clinicians, patients and members of the public, and more needs to be done to ensure data teams better reflect the communities they serve. Health and care organisations have an essential role in innovation, but they have not invested sufficiently in their analytics teams.

The UK is fortunate to have wonderful organisations working in data and technology, and fabulous work is already underway. But new challenges are emerging all the time, and the system is so fragmented that there is a risk of things falling between the gaps. 

How we’re helping to make this happen

We want to make our vision a reality and we know we can have the biggest impact by partnering and collaborating with others. As an independent charity, we can work with a diverse range of organisations to understand what the priorities are and to make a direct contribution to addressing problems that are currently being missed.

We’ll be supporting and conducting research into the opportunities and risks brought by analytics and data-driven technologies and bringing people together to discuss where action is needed to ensure these technologies have a positive impact on our health.  

One of our biggest strengths is our data analytics team, which has been established for five years. We are proven innovators, and understand health data. The environment that we’ve established at the Health Foundation means we can test out new approaches at small scale, building prototypes and seeing whether they produce benefit. When we find something that works, we can scale it, establishing new initiatives that help the UK’s health to benefit from analytics and data-driven technology. 

We’ve done this several times before. Our Networked Data Lab and Improvement Analytics Unit  are already boosting the use of analytics in key areas, using data to understand the nature of the health challenges facing the UK, and the impact of changes to how health care is delivered. We’ll be building on this track record, establishing new partnerships to ensure the UK’s health benefits from analytics and data-driven technology. 

We’ll also continue to push ourselves to develop our own analytics practice, including how we work and communicate with patients and the public. We’ll be spreading and sharing what we learn online and through our events, resources and publications. We’re also joining in the conversation about diversity and inclusion and providing platforms for discussion. Across all our work we are committed to working in a spirit of openness. 

We have a long-standing relationship with the NHS and social care and want to see a strong health and social care system that maximises the value of its data. So, we’ll continue championing better analytics across the sector, offering funding and support for innovative work, and creating networks and communities. 

Throughout, we will bring an independent and trusted voice on national policy and system design issues, benefiting from the broad perspective we have at the Health Foundation across all of our strategic priorities.

For lots more about our work and some specific plans for the coming year, take a look at our section of the Health Foundation’s Insider’s guide for 2020 (published tomorrow).


Adam Steventon (@ASteventonTHF) is 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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