The scale of the NHS means it generates vast amounts of information, with over 5 million GP consultations and 3 million hospital visits happening each week in England alone. This data is a huge asset for the NHS, and there’s real potential to use it to help improve outcomes for patients. 

Data can be used to improve health care in myriad ways, from better operational decisions, to quality improvement, commissioning, policymaking and public debate. It will be essential for making the most of the extra funding promised for the NHS in England. Data are needed to:

And data will become even more important over the coming years, as we will see even more rapid innovation in data analytics and digital technology, offering further opportunities for the NHS. The many exciting ways data analytics can be used to drive system change are discussed by Sarah Dougan, Chief Analytical Officer at Islington Council in our interview with her this month

The big challenge is to move to everyday use of data to improve health and social care. Individual analyses are insightful, but it would better if organisations had the capability to drive improvement by using data themselves. In this newsletter we explore what the Health Foundation is doing to help.

One of the problems identified by our review of analytical capability is that analysts working in health and social care are often isolated, with little opportunity to collaborate, share ideas and improve practice. So, we are supporting networks that bring analysts together to tackle pressing problems in health care delivery, like the NHS-R Community and the Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts. You can read more about these initiatives in this article on the ways we’re helping to build data analytics capability across the sector

We are also offering funding and support to analysts to use data in innovative ways that help build capability locally. This is important because analytical teams have an essential role not only when it comes to analysing data, but with helping to structure problems, gather evidence, and communicate findings. Analysts can also act as champions for an evidence-based approach to decision-making within their organisations. 

Meanwhile, our own data analytics team is showing how data can be used to tackle some of the big challenges facing the NHS nationally. My colleagues Sarah Deeny and Arne Wolters share their reflections including on one of our projects that asked 9,000 patients about how confident they were with managing their own health conditions. The most confident patients had 38% fewer emergency admissions than patients who were least able to manage their own conditions, as well as fewer A&E attendances and GP appointments. Many approaches are available to help patients manage their health better, including health coaching, peer support and apps. These might reduce avoidable use of services as well as improve quality of life.

Many of these projects are based on linking data together from multiple parts of the health and social care system. This is important because many of the problems facing patients using the NHS are the product of how several organisations interact. By linking data together, we can shed insight about problems like long waiting times, or fragmented and poorly coordinated care.

NHS England has recognised the importance of data linkage by investing in Local Health and Care Records Exemplars. These are integrating health and care records locally in five parts of England with the aim of improving individual care, as well as producing intelligence about population health needs and service provision. We are pushing this further by thinking beyond health and social care to incorporate broader factors such as whether a person lives alone and the health needs of family members. 

Of course, no newsletter on data analytics would be complete without an article on methods. In her blog, our senior statistician, Therese Lloyd, highlights an issue that needs to be understood by anybody who is evaluating the impact of complex changes to service delivery, namely the pitfalls with the before-and-after approach. Her example is taken from a report published yesterday by the Improvement Analytics Unit, our partnership with NHS England that aims to help the NHS improve care by providing rapid feedback on the impact of local change initiatives.

Data is essential for effective change to happen in the NHS. But for the potential to be realised, action is needed on several fronts, including raising awareness among health care leaders of the benefits data analytics can bring, and providing more opportunities for analysts to share learning across organisational boundaries and collaborate. 

By working with others to make progress in these areas, we hope to help improve health and health care for people living in the UK. 

Adam Steventon (@ASteventonTHF) is Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation. 

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