If you are like us, your days are punctuated by regular updates on the numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalisations from COVID-19. Never far from our minds are the lives and people behind the data points. 

Data is telling a horrifying story about the toll that the pandemic is taking. It’s also playing a critical role in the response to the virus, informing national and international policy, the search for new treatments and vaccines, and the rapid innovation that is happening across the NHS. Data can never solve a problem like COVID-19, but it can help in the fight to protect the most vulnerable. People who work in data often say #datasaveslives, and this has never been more meaningful.

As an organisation we have been proud to support data analysts working with the NHS and local authorities through our £5 million analytical capability building programme, and it’s incredible to see the contribution these teams are making now. They’ve worked tirelessly to help the NHS and social care respond to the pandemic. 

We launched our data analytics for better health strategy in January, with the ambitious aim to ensure that analytics and data-driven technology benefit everyone in the UK. We knew data was critical for the UK to overcome problems like health inequalities, poor care for older frail people, a lack of parity between physical and mental health, and now also COVID-19.

In this blog, we share how we have mobilised our existing programmes and partnerships to support the response to coronavirus. 

Using data to understand the impact of COVID-19

Data teams around the UK are providing important insights, such as these signs that fewer people are seeking health care, and this deeply worrying analysis that the infection is disproportionately affecting people from ethnic minorities. People living on low incomes, in precarious employment, without a home, or living with other disadvantages may also bear the brunt of this pandemic. 

We’re helping to fill these gaps. Already we’ve provided analysis to help Imperial College assess hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients, and we’ll be tracking the impact of the pandemic as part of a Health Foundation chart series, which so far has examined trends in deaths in care homes as well as the general population.

We’ve also started deeper analysis, using person-level primary and secondary care data to understand the wider impact of the pandemic. Our initial focus is care homes, where we’re working to identify areas of vulnerability, and where additional help and support could be most valuable.  

We know we are in this for the long haul, so we’ll be leveraging our existing initiatives like the Networked Data Lab and Improvement Analytics Unit to understand how the UK can adapt and continue to provide high-quality care. Our Improvement Analytics Unit is looking at the impacts of the acceleration of digital first primary care. Our Networked Data Lab is completing its search for partners and hopes to get going on the linked data soon. 

Supporting analysts to share and collaborate in the crisis period and recovery 

The last few weeks have shown the vital importance of open and reproducible data and analytics. Open analytics accelerates innovation, prevents duplication and enables everyone to build on the work that’s gone before.   

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, and analysts need more support to allow them to share code, tools and methods safely (as we have learnt ourselves since starting to share our own code last year).

To help, we’ve created a guide for analysts about how to collaborate and share during this crisis – no matter what point they are starting from. And we’ve created a place where we could gather all the resources available, and allow them to share tools, code and methods. We’re also supporting existing initiatives to help analysts share their skills and tools, including the NHS-R community, the Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts, and FutureNHS.

Data teams need to involve patients and the public in their work, especially when there are such important social implications from the technology being developed. We’ve been developing resources to help us engage with patients and the public – even when time seems tight. We’ll be sharing these with the analytical community over the coming weeks. 

Data analytics to support social care

The virus continues to expose the weak points in our society. Deficiencies that have persisted for years in our data and analytics system are now revealing themselves to be major weaknesses. One of these is social care.

The need in social care is enormous. As reports emerged from Italy, Spain and the United States, it became clear that the pandemic was taking a horrific toll on people living in residential and nursing homes, and sadly, we’ve now started to have it confirmed that the UK is seeing the same effects. At the same time, social care analytics is underdeveloped, and we are wanting to do what we can to support it at this point in time. 

Soon, we will be putting out a call for others to join us to explore how data analytics can support social care services during the pandemic  and beyond. We’ll be looking for opportunities to support immediate innovation in the sector, while building up the capability we need for the long term.

Encouraging a responsible innovation ecosystem responding to COVID-19

Innovation has been happening at a pace and scale we never thought possible. GP practices are rolling out digital first primary care at breakneck speed, our newspapers are full of stories about the new contact-tracing technology that Google, Apple and NHSX are developing, and the government has announced a data store with Palantir. 

While the innovation brings benefits, it also carries risks, to health inequalities as well as privacy. As the recent report from the Ada Lovelace Institute made clear there is a need for public scrutiny, and we are exploring how we can help to achieve this – expect more information soon.


Are you working in these areas? Do you have ideas to share? If so, please reach out to us. Our work programme in this area is changing all the time and we welcome suggestions. 

Sarah Deeny (@SarahDeeny) is Assistant Director and Adam Steventon (@ASteventonTHF) is Director in the Data Analytics team 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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