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Neil Pettinger is a training consultant, who spent nearly 20 years as an NHS information manager. He led the evaluation of the first round of the Health Foundation’s Advancing Applied Analytics programme. The programme aims to improve analytical capability in support of health and care services, which we have argued is needed to support better care. We spoke to Neil about the impact of the programme on the analytical community.

What impact is the Advancing Applied Analytics programme having?

The evaluation was commissioned to take stock of what has been achieved so far, and to inform the future design of the programme. It found that the 12 projects funded in round one of the programme were having a really positive impact and all projects said they were increasing analytical capability. 

I see three broad impacts of the programme. 

  1. Thinking creatively and innovatively. Firstly, the funding rounds act as a prompt for information professionals to pause, consider their work in different terms, spend time thinking more creatively and be more innovative than they would otherwise. That should not be underestimated. I’ve been a member of this health information tribe for the best part of 30 years and our routine mode is not to think innovatively; anything that prompts us to do so is a good thing!
  2. Thinking about impact and decision making. The second impact is to do with decision making. Again, the funding rounds act as a prompt for information professionals to think, ‘Are we making a difference? Is our information making an impact at the decision-making level?’. I can speak as a member of the tribe here; although I think people do this in many other professions too: day-to-day, you tend not to think about the outcome or end product, you think of what you’re doing as a process. This programme is making people think about the point of what they are doing and whether and how it is affecting decision making.
  3. Working in collaboration with others. The third thing which came out of the evaluation interviews, and was a near-universal theme, is that the projects involved collaboration with other agencies. The lead person in a project might be the head of information at an acute trust, but the projects usually involved at least one other organisation within the health economy, often also a local university, and sometimes a private sector partner. 

A key benefit for the analytical community came across indirectly during the interviews. This was around the community feeling that has been generated with the backing of the Health Foundation. Having the Foundation take health informatics seriously, through the funding of this programme and through the publication of considered reports and thought pieces about the role of information – that means a lot to the informatics community. 

How are projects influencing the wider health information system? 

Two of the projects have become particularly high profile. One is the NHS-R Community. The project set out to kick-start the use of the ‘R’ statistical and graphics programming language in the NHS in order to improve data analysis and develop shared solutions. The community is now preparing for its second annual conference. When tickets went on sale it sold out in 15 minutes, like a rock concert! They’re definitely doing something right in terms of spreading awareness.

The other example of a project that’s become well known and is doing extremely well is one based in Gloucestershire. It’s a training and development project for informatics staff, almost like an apprenticeship scheme. Two representatives spoke at the recent AphA (Association of professional healthcare analysts) conference, including one of the analysts who had gone through the programme. The project supports people at early stages in their career and gives them a structured experience around all the parts of the health economy. Analysts spend a few months in the acute team, the community team and primary care, so they get that breadth of awareness.

It’s very easy for analysts to become too specialised. If you’re in an acute hospital you know all about the data on waiting lists, inpatients and outpatients, but you know nothing at all about the data available on general practice, community nursing or mental health. These two projects and others in NHS South Central and West and in Derby have a focus on training and development and they were all exposing analysts to areas of work that they wouldn’t normally have got involved in.

I visited Kent to look at their whole systems project and I came away with a warm feeling, because I loved the scale of their ambition. One of their ideas is that ‘you don’t have to be an analyst, to be an analyst’. They suggest that in some ways it’s better to train someone who’s not an analyst in whole systems modelling because they’re not as constrained by conventions and orthodoxy. That project is bringing together information from all aspects of the healthcare system. 

Another project warmed my heart for a different reason. That was in Belfast, looking at whether the routes of referral into cancer diagnosis can give us information about how best to structure cancer screening. It’s a model that’s worked in England and they wanted to do that in Northern Ireland. What was really good about it was that it got the department leading the project involved in work they were really enthusiastic about – even though it wasn’t an area that they would normally be part of. 

What support is needed in future to have further impact?

I attended an event at the Health Foundation which was a celebration of the round one projects. And it struck me that, somehow, we’ve got to communicate their successes more widely. 

When the speakers from the Gloucestershire project presented to the AphA conference, you could tell there were people in the room listening to their description of the project and how effective it was for learning and development and thinking about how they could replicate it in their own settings. 

Working with the regional AphA branches would be one way to increase the reach of these projects. I’m sure each project would be happy to nominate a guest speaker for regional events. There are also skills development networks for informatics and those networks might be another good place to spread learning.

Replicating some of the projects would need significant funding, but others could be adapted and implemented relatively cheaply. There’s a lot of potential benefit from spreading the learning from these projects and I would love to see that ambition and enthusiasm spread throughout the analytical community.

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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