Primary care trusts and practice-based commissioning clusters need accurate, up-to-date information to develop better services for patients. Work is under way to ensure the Secondary Uses Service delivers what they need, writes Tim Straughan

To achieve world class commissioning, primary care trusts and commissioning GPs need comprehensive, accurate and timely information as never before - as well as the skills and capacity to make the best use of it.

The NHS Operating Framework 2008-09 underlines the need for high-quality information and says that by April 2009 the NHS should be using the Secondary Uses Service - the national data warehouse - as the standard repository for all data to enable performance monitoring, reconciliation and payment.

Currently, PCTs and PBC clusters typically use the Secondary Uses Service in tandem with local systems set up to exchange data between providers and commissioners. But by this time next year, the service should be the first port of call for all management information.

SUS may have been viewed with ambivalence in the past. But it has been very much a work in progress and this year its development is being accelerated to make it the definitive data management system to support planning and commissioning across the service.

Great potential

Most PCTs and GP commissioners acknowledge the huge potential SUS has for supporting better service development. Increasingly, they are also recognising the role they themselves have in ensuring the data held on SUS is accurate and up-to-date.

To play their part in improving the service, commissioners need to ensure they address three particular issues:

  • they must incorporate the operating framework's requirement for timely, high-quality data submissions in their contracts with providers;

  • they need to work with systems suppliers to amend local systems (where necessary) to accept extracts of "costed" data from SUS to drive payment processes;

  • they should consider how they can use information more effectively - such as NHS Comparators - based on data from SUS to improve local planning and commissioning.

Nationally, providers clearly need more guidance. In partnership with NHS Connecting for Health, the NHS Information Centre has issued guidance on implementing new data sets and minimising the risk of data duplications and rejections of data submissions to SUS. A new data quality reporting system is also available to let providers know where they have data quality problems and what they need to do to address them.

Work has begun

SUS will need to improve quickly to deliver what the NHS needs, but work is under way and users are already getting the benefits such as new services aimed at helping them meet the 18-week target.

Our goal is better patient care through the best possible commissioning practices. We know SUS must deliver and we are committed to making sure it will. But frontline NHS staff also need to recognise the role they play in ensuring the information the NHS has at its disposal is timely and accurate. They also have a responsibility to make the best possible use of it. It is what NHS patients expect and deserve from all of us.