Data has become ever-more prominent during the covid pandemic. But ensuring easy access – and understanding what statistics can and cannot do – remains a challenge, as a recent HSJ webinar discussed

Digital network data

Natalie Banner has been working for some time on how best to have conversations with the public on the use of healthcare data, but – just like so much else – the pandemic has changed things. After all, poring over graphs while discussing r rate and flattening the curve has become a widespread pastime since March.

“Data has become so prominent during the pandemic,” says Banner, lead for the Understanding Patient Data initiative hosted by Wellcome.

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“It has really brought the importance of data to prominence in the public domain like never before. Uses of data, interpretations of data, are being scrutinised by the media, by politicians, by health professionals, by patients and by the public in a way that hasn’t ever really previously been possible.”

Ms Banner was speaking at an HSJ webinar exploring how the NHS can best use data to make informed decisions about where to go from here. And she was not alone in her view that the pandemic had in some instances led to progress.

“There have certainly been some real areas of excellence in the way in which data is being utilised,” argued Shaun Collings, regional business director UK public sector at Pure Storage – which supported the event.

“I think what it’s really drawn out is the way in which we start to view data as being critical to the way in which services are delivered in the future.”

“Uses of data, interpretations of data, are being scrutinised by the media, by politicians, by health professionals, by patients and by the public in a way that hasn’t ever really previously been possible”

Added Josh Keith, senior fellow at the Health Foundation: “It’s highlighted how important it is for health and care services at all level – be that national, regional or more local – to have access to high quality data and analytical insights.”

He argued this applied in both dealing with the challenges that have emerged from the pandemic to date, and the challenges it may continue to pose.

But to what extent such data is easily available is an open question. One audience member, for instance, asked the panel about the issue of delays between information being collected and it being made available.

She pointed out that policies on digital primary care were being made in the here and now, yet the most recent GP patient survey data – released in June 2020 – all relates to pre-pandemic times. The next release, which will include reflections on the shift to digital seen during covid, won’t be available until June 2021.

For Mr Keith, this was an important point and example. He suggested that the GP survey data might be collected for one very specific purpose – “to provide NHS England and Improvement with a robust national view of patient experience” – and that there was a valuable conversation to be had about what data was needed for broader service planning, and how any gaps could be filled.

“Awareness of the caveats and limitations of data is incredibly important,” suggested Ms Banner. “Taking stock of what’s not being counted that might matter to us is important [and worth] developing so hopefully there is a better, improved health service in the future.”

To watch an on demand version of the full discussion, click here.

How can the NHS use data to make informed decisions about where to go from here?

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    How can the NHS use data to make informed decisions about where to go from here?

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