Digital and data-driven technology has a big part to play in the delivery of health and social care services. The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to a drastic increase in the use of new technology, whether to support online consultation, understand patient flow through the health care system or in contact-tracing efforts.

Harnessing the potential of these innovations for the benefit of everyone’s health and care is one of the main challenges of our times. Health and social care providers, commissioners and innovators need to understand which technologies work well, for whom and why. They also need to understand what can be done to improve how they work and how to tackle any unexpected outcomes that might negatively impact or even harm patients.

Having access to the right data can shed light on the impact of innovations. Last week, as part of a programme of work exploring the impact of digital first primary care, the Improvement Analytics Unit (IAU) published findings on how remote consultations have changed during COVID-19. The analysis shows that GP practices using askmyGP (an NHS-approved remote consultation product) were able to adapt quickly to the demands of the pandemic, undertaking more care remotely without significantly impacting the total number of consultations delivered. This is one example of the valuable insights gained when evaluators can access data held by private companies – in addition to data held by the NHS – to understand the impact of innovation.

As we move forward, and new technologies become available, it is important that evaluators have access to data from a multitude of sources, linked to medical records from general practice and hospitals. This would help to identify patient groups already benefiting from innovative services, as well as those finding it harder to engage with technology who might be at risk of missing out on important care.

The role data stewardship can play

In response to these challenges, we commissioned the Open Data Institute to write a report on applying new models of data stewardship to health and care data, which published last week.

The report highlights the important role evaluators can play as a data institution, acting as a trusted party, holding data from both public and private providers, and making data available to others. They can also play a convening role, bringing together all parties involved in developing and implementing digital and data-driven technologies. Innovators should make the information they collect available for evaluation purposes, while health care providers need to ensure that clear agreements are reached on data flows when innovations are introduced to the health service.

What does the report mean for the Health Foundation?

At the Health Foundation we both commission and carry out evaluations, including through our work with the IAU. We already work closely with the health service to safely access data for our evaluation work. And have acted as a trusted third party to bring patient-level data together from different providers, who wouldn’t easily be able to share data with each other directly, while maintaining patient confidentiality.

In response to the recommendations in the report we need to reconsider our role as a data institution. For instance, by tackling some of the legal challenges in bringing data together at scale rather than to support a single evaluation. And we need to think about how we might disseminate both learning and data to other evaluators and analysts in the health and care system. This wider role as a data institution can support evaluation of innovations at scale, and maximise the impact of the expertise we already have in our unit and as a funder of evaluation.

What does the report mean for the wider health system?

At a time where innovations in health service delivery have been introduced at an unprecedented pace, it is more important than ever to understand, translate and adapt the best of COVID-19-related innovations into everyday practice. A strong and robust data stewardship model would support important initiatives like the NHS Reset collaboration between the NHS Confederation, AHSN Network and the Health Foundation, which is exploring how to sustain and spread the best COVID-19 innovation.

Testing, implementing and improving a strong data stewardship model can only be achieved through collaboration with all parties involved in digital and data-driven innovation. Therefore, we call on innovators, health care providers, funders, patients and other evaluators to act on the recommendations in the ODI’s report. It is only by working together that we will create an environment that would allow technological innovation to thrive and maximise the benefit to everyone’s health.

Arne Wolters (@4RN3W0L73R5) is Acting Head of the Improvement Analytics Unit at the Health Foundation.

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