Using health data to get analytical

4 Sep 18

A huge amount of data is generated in the NHS. Using the expertise of data analysts to make sense of it could improve clinical care and how services are run, says the Health Foundation’s Adam Steventon.

The NHS delivers excellent care, but lags behind some other countries in outcomes in several areas, including deaths from cancer, heart attacks and stroke.

Every week in England over five million GP consultations and three million hospital visits take place, generating huge amounts of data. Making better use could potentially improve care.

Algorithms are already being used to prompt clinicians about diagnoses and treatments. One has been found to be better at detecting eye disease from scans than specialist doctors.

Data is also helping NHS teams improve services. The Improvement Analytics Unit, a partnership between NHS England and the Health Foundation, provides information rapidly on the impact of changes to how care is delivered. Advanced analytics compare the outcomes of patients receiving new models of care with those receiving traditional services.

The big challenge is to move to everyday use of data to improve health and social care

Data can help policymakers to understand thorny NHS service delivery problems, such as the 42% rise in urgent and unplanned hospital admissions in the past decade. These admissions are often undesirable, exposing patients to the stress of being in hospital, and putting pressure on scarce resources, making it harder for hospitals to deliver planned care.

Data analysis helps show how these admissions can be avoided. Our recent research shows that children are more likely to use health services if their parents have a mental health problem such as depression. This insight may help clinicians identify and offer greater support to families most in need, reducing pressure on the NHS.

The big challenge is to move to everyday use of data to improve health and social care. Individual analyses are insightful, but it would be better if organisations had the capability to drive improvement by using data themselves

Significant progress is being made with IT. What is also needed is a skilled workforce able to make the best use of the huge amounts of data being generated. Unfortunately, our review into analytical capability in the NHS found analysts are often professionally isolated and unsupported.

This is a problem because analytical teams play an essential role in not only analysing the data but also helping to structure problems, gather evidence and communicate findings. Analysts can also act as champions for an evidence-based approach to decision making.

What is needed is an environment where analysts can flourish, so they can show what can be done with NHS data to benefit patients

It is encouraging that the 10,000 or so analysts working in the NHS are coming together in networks. The Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts shares learning through workshops on topics such as how to measure variation in care quality, improve the quality of analytics and raise awareness of the role good analysis can play in making decisions about healthcare.

Some initiatives are using open source statistical programs such as R. The NHS-R Community, established last year, offers NHS analysts the chance to connect with each other to use and develop visualisation and statistical tools for issues such as reporting hospital mortality statistics or evaluating interventions. These programs allow analysts to share knowledge and resources freely as part of worldwide communities. R is already widely used, including by Google and Airbnb, as well as within academia.

What is needed now is an environment where analysts can flourish, so they can show what can be done with NHS data to benefit patients. This includes action on several fronts, particularly in raising awareness among healthcare leaders of the advantages data analytics can bring, as well as more opportunities for analysts to come together, exchange learning across organisational boundaries and collaborate. The result could be an NHS that can make faster progress on improving outcomes for patients.


  • Adam Steventon

    director of data analytics at the Health Foundation> He tweets @asteventonthf


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