Opinion: Untapped potential - how can organisations realise the value of health and care data?

Ellen Coughlan, programme manager at the Health Foundation, provides insight on how the charity helped create a free and openly available tool for organisations to take the first step toward realising the value of the data they collect.
By Ellen Coughlan
05:38 AM

Analysis is key in shaping care for individual patients as well as across organisations and health systems. 

It has been estimated that each person produces 1.7 megabytes of data per second. If so, in the time it takes to read this sentence, 112 terabytes of data will be generated in the UK. This will come as no surprise to those working within health and care in the UK, which amasses colossal volumes of data with each passing moment.

We have seemingly endless amounts of data at our fingertips and in our systems. The challenge is in effectively recording, storing, accessing, interrogating, analysing and presenting that data in a way that produces actionable insights to help improve the way in which care is delivered to patients.

Using data effectively

Analysis is key in shaping care for individual patients as well as across organisations and health systems. It also has a role in helping to improve quality and safety by identifying areas for improvement and monitoring service delivery. There are stellar examples of analyses being applied innovatively to health and care datasets to bring about positive impacts. For example, Midlothian Health and Social Care Partnership saw rapid benefits from a project that built an analytical framework for patients living with frailty. The framework has aided primary care planning and delivery by informing the redesign of an appointment system to better meet the needs of that cohort of patients. It also directly benefitted patients by highlighting to clinicians those eligible for blue badges and other benefits and social care support. Unfortunately, we know that cases like this are exceptional and don’t reflect the wider landscape which so commonly sees health and care data analysed only as part of routine, operational churn.

A report produced by the Health Foundation in 2016, Understanding Analytical Capability, outlined the dual themes of issues facing health and care organisations in using data effectively. These were issues of supply -- whether analytical teams are appropriately staffed, skilled and have access to the right data and tools to perform their role -- and issues of demand -- whether decision-makers, leaders and managers are recognising analysis as a strategic asset, deploying analysts effectively, investing in their development and asking the "right" questions.

Since Understanding Analytical Capability was written, the health and care system has seen the announcement of a number of national initiatives, programmes and publications describing the importance of realising the value of health and care data. The Wachter Review focussed on the need to deliver a digital, interoperable healthcare system, the Topol Review highlighted the development needs of staff across the NHS to deliver the digital agenda, and the government recently established NHSX to transform both health and social care to meet the needs of patients in a digital age. This year, the Health Foundation published Untapped Potential, a report that describes nine key reasons why leaders should invest more in health and care data analytics. While these have helped to shape discourse around data both locally and nationally, we still hear the familiar refrain that we have more data than insight. 

How can individual organisations harness their analytics resources to bring data to bear on the issues facing the system?

At the Health Foundation, under the auspices of our analytical capability programme, we recently partnered with Beautiful Information, to create a free and openly available tool for organisations to take the first step toward realising the value of the data they collect. The Analytical Capability Index, which was launched last week, is the product of discussions with individuals from across the health and care system. It allows an organisation to measure and benchmark how well it uses data and performs analysis, taking a dual perspective by posing questions to both a decision maker and to the analyst. These two lenses reflect issues around the supply and demand of data analytics and provide a framework through which to discuss the results, elevating an often-transactional relationship to one that facilitates open dialogue. The tool also signposts the users to examples of good practice, relevant resources and networks so that each organisation can develop a plan that addresses opportunities for improvement.

Through promoting better use of data, we want to stimulate demand for quality analysis and catalyse debate in the system about how best to address the key factors preventing health and care organisations from fully unlocking the potential of health and care data. Learn more about the tool.

Ellen Coughlan is programme manager at the Health Foundation, an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.