At this time of the year, when the days are darker and colder, many of us are reminded of how much our health and wellbeing is influenced by warm houses and schools, secure and flexible jobs that pay us even when we’re unwell or needing to care for loved ones, and having enough money for the things that keep us healthy, including food and prescriptions. But sadly not everyone has access to these important building blocks of health. The difference in health, and the gap in life expectancy, between the most and least deprived areas are both getting bigger.
Local authorities have influence on the different building blocks of health in their communities. This encompasses not only education, housing and employment but also air quality, availability of affordable and nutritious food and access to green spaces. Importantly, they hold data about where and for whom these blocks may be missing or weakened. These rich datasets include measures of poverty, including the number of children receiving free school meals or which households require fuel vouchers.
At the Health Foundation, we want to understand how local government uses this knowledge about local populations to improve health and address inequalities.
Better use of data can support health in a range of ways. It can help to identify where different types of support are needed and identify individuals and groups at risk of multiple disadvantage. It can also be used in combination with other data, such as residents’ views, or NHS data, where governance arrangements have been established. The data can also be used to make the case for interventions to improve health and to monitor implementation and impact.
The Health Foundation is interested in understanding the analytical resources local government has used or is using to uncover insights about the building blocks of health. We interviewed a dozen analysts and decision-makers in local government across England to understand the capacity of local government to apply quality analyses and uncover insights about the building blocks of health and the inequalities found therein. We heard the following themes.
- Many analysts in local government are spending most of their time focusing on ‘lifting and shifting’ data from one system or spreadsheet to another to complete operational and statutory reports. Tasks like this would benefit most from automation, so that analyst time could be freed up to create more valuable work, such as upskilling, learning from colleagues in different departments or local authorities, or developing new analyses and findings.
- Short-termism hinders progress. Work to understand the impact of the building blocks of health – and importantly where action is needed – requires long-term investment in data collection, analysis and development of the analytical workforce alongside long-term monitoring to understand changes in wellbeing. Short-term projects that promise impact more quickly are often favoured over this kind of longer term work that might be more complex but have greater impact over time. This is becoming increasingly acute as more councils struggle to balance the books.
- While analyst teams in local government have faced deep cuts, the ring-fenced public health grant means public health analysts have been well protected relative to the near dissolution of analyst teams in housing, social care and education departments. This results in a lack of collaboration across departments and siloed analyses that lack the comprehensiveness that would unearth new insights about how the wider determinants interact with one another to impact health.
- There are networks of analysts working together regionally and across the country that facilitate peer learning and sharing of tools and resources, including the Advanced and Predictive Analytics Network, Data Science for Health Equity and the Association of Professional Heath and Care Analysts. These networks could play an important role in advocating for better investment and diffusing tools and approaches to improve analytical capability.
One of our strategic aims at the Health Foundation is to support local action to improve health, of which data is an important part. We have developed a local authority dashboard, as part of our evidence hub, which will be launched in the spring. The dashboard brings together data, insights and analysis to help councils explore the drivers of health inequality and make the case for action on the wider determinants of health for the services they provide or have influence over.
Going forward we’re interested in understanding how analytical capability in local government can be improved and where investment should be focused in order to better harness data analytics to address health inequalities. We’d like to learn more about the culture of data sharing and collaboration that underpin local projects, what kinds of tools are being used and what kind of partnerships are being developed across sectors to support delivery.
Please get in touch with us to share your thoughts, or to tell us about projects that have successfully linked and analysed data to measure the impact of the wider determinants on health.