The April 2023 publication of the Hewitt review, an independent, government-commissioned review of integrated care systems in the UK, revealed staggering statistics relating to the financial and social impact of health inequalities. Defined by the NHS as “unfair and avoidable differences in health across the population, and between different groups within society,” health inequalities are estimated to cost the NHS an extra £4.8bn a year, around £31bn a year in lost employee productivity, and between £20bn to £32bn a year in lost tax revenue and benefit payments.
Improved technology and better access to data can help to reduce these harmful health inequalities, while continued reliance on outdated systems only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Evidence-based decision-making for evidence-based care
Healthcare treatments are based on the best available clinical evidence from systematic reviews. Such evidence-based medicine is defined as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of the individual patient. It means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research” (Sackett D, 1996).
The recent covid-19 pandemic highlighted how much healthcare leaders relied on data to make evidence-based decisions. One lasting image from those days was the data dashboards that were part of the daily news briefings on the spread of the disease. The pandemic also accelerated the adoption of new healthcare technologies, including cloud data platforms to better manage data — including healthcare data.
At the centre of evidence-based decision making is data sharing. It should come as no surprise that a joint call to action was issued on 27 September 2023 from the national data guardian (Dr Nicola Bryne) the information commissioner (John Edwards) and the chief medical officer for England (Chris Whitty) that health and care staff must share information effectively to support individual’s care.
But, how can we ensure that all our data is secure, safe and governed in a way that it can be shared with leaders as well as help citizens make informed decisions about their care?
Legacy IT, digital maturity and health inequalities
One of the biggest barriers to making positive change is aging legacy healthcare IT systems. These systems were designed to handle data loads of the past, and they are ill equipped to handle the huge volumes of data produced in our modern, constantly connected world. Legacy systems are often costly to maintain and are locked down in such a way that makes the data siloed and inaccessible.
But imagine a world where we can open up access to rich data sources from within electronic health record systems to support population health. If we are to be successful in delivering a modern health and social care system, we need to address the burden of outdated legacy IT systems that are ultimately contributing to health inequalities. If healthcare organisations cannot effectively access data because of data silos, then they are missing access to key data that could drive better healthcare outcomes for more citizens.
To help uplevel the digital maturity of ICSs nationwide, NHS England is offering funding for 95 per cent of trusts to have implemented an EHR by 2025.
Data sharing is key to better health outcomes
A modern health and social care system needs to be able to leverage all forms of data—structured, unstructured and semi-structured data—in near real time to help leaders make smarter decisions. To deliver effective evidence-based healthcare, external data sets are required from a number of third-party sources in addition to the NHS, such as the Office for National Statistics, the Met Office, local authorities, police, and more. All this data helps to provide a holistic view of the patient (“Patient 360”), helping healthcare providers better predict when patients are likely to become ill or injured, and require support from health and social care.
For example, sharing Met Office data with NHS data can help predict hospital demand related to extreme heat or cold spells. It is not about moving data but creating a single source of truth in a secure and governed way.
It is not all about new technology, but also about cultivating a new mindset. The widespread adoption of the NHS app has proved that UK citizens want to be more engaged in their own healthcare — and are willing to embrace technology to do so. The healthcare organisations providing care across the UK must be willing to do the same to usher in a new era of health equality.
Building a healthier future
Want to learn more about how healthcare organisations can mobilise their data to fight health inequalities? Be sure to attend our webinar on Thursday 30 November, 10:30am-11:15am.