The NHS must support managers and clinicians to develop skills and knowledge to use information more effectively. Andy Cowper reports

The NHS Information Centre may be doing its very best to improve the accessibility, quality and user-friendliness of data and information, but that is only one half of the equation. Managers and clinicians need to develop their own skills and knowledge to make most effective use of what's available.

Handling data effectively is not the sole domain of informatics staff. Commissioners, clinicians and managers all need to play their part in using information to help improve patient care.

Supporting better skills

Brian Derry, who chairs the Association for Health Informatics Professions in Health and Social Care as well as working as a programme manager for The NHS IC, describes ASSIST as "a professional association for people working in health and social care informatics. It exists to provide development opportunities for informatics specialists, and to provide constructive representation with government departments."

Mr Derry is frank that informatics skills are lacking in the NHS. He said: "They are patchy, especially in using information as opposed to maintaining systems.

"Investment in technology is there through the National Programme for IT, but we still need to invest more in giving people the skills to get the best from the IT.

"There's a feeling that informatics is just used to produce information for the Department of Health and other third parties. We need to reach a point where informatics capacity and capability exists to improve local services - and it's now beginning to happen in a big way."

He sees this as primarily a local issue. "Informatics skills and good analytical brains are in short supply across the whole economy," he says. "A key enabler for world-class commissioning will be improving the informatics capacity and capability of NHS. The NHS IC has a pool of expertise, which I hope will be more widely available to build capacity and capability."

Mr Derry adds that some PCTs have become forward-thinking about informatics skills and workforce development due to information-driven central performance management and targets.

Clinical perspective

Dr Mark Davies, The NHS IC's recently-appointed medical director, agrees with Mr Derry that although the NHS has turned 60, its use of data and information "remains adolescent". Information use has long been a key interest for Dr Davies and he was previously national clinical director for NHS Connecting For Health.

He says: "Even though I came from an information system, technical and data standards perspective; my job now is about practical, everyday information use in clinical practice.

"Information must become an inherent tool for clinicians to improve the responsiveness and quality of services."

Davies cites the GP contract quality and outcomes framework as a practical example of data driving improvement. He adds: "It's vital to present information in ways relevant to particular target audiences, like a PCT commissioner wanting to understand what a good service for diabetes looks like or a clinician wanting to compare their activity levels with a peer."

Dr Davies also emphasises the importance of NHS colleagues taking ownership of data. He says: "Unfortunately, coalface clinicians have been divorced from data describing their activity, which isn't sustainable going forwards. It's vital to connect them to data and information describing their services, to ensure firstly, it's relevant to them and, secondly, they have a vested interest in quality of data.

"Clinicians must get to see collection not as a burden but as a fundamental part of the care process, and an investment in improving our services. We can only do that by directly connecting clinicians to activity and outcome data."

As a clinician, Dr Davies says: "What's most important to me is relevance and usefulness of data to tell me whether I provide services to meet patient need.

"We need to reach a point where data is collected only once, at the point of care, giving us confidence in its quality and its suitability for a range of uses including financial flows and commissioning. If we incentivise data quality and completeness at the point of care, that will drive up standards and create a virtuous circle of improving patient flows."