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The NHS is one of the most prolific gatherers of data in the world. It’s not surprising as it employs 1.4m people, caters for a population of nearly 70m and sees about 800,000 + patients every day. Every interaction with a patient whether on the phone, a home visit, at a GP surgery or a stay in hospital, results in data being generated and stored away in a myriad of systems.
This collection of data will only accelerate over time as new methods of treatment are implemented and the use of technology is extended.
All this generated data is nothing less than gold dust which has far reaching consequences not only for you and me (the individual patient) but can, and does, drive drug development, models of care and government policy in a whole set of areas. Of course, the data can be used in more insidious ways, for example by insurance companies but this happens anyway, try getting reasonably priced Life insurance as you get older. What is undeniable is the data collected by the NHS and its affiliated organizations, if or when used intelligently, has the power to transform the lives of all our citizens in this country and the wider world, for the good.
Analyzing data effectively does not come without its challenges. A recent report by Cumberlege on maternity services in the North West revealed the problem of excess data, rather than timely and relevant information. The simple answer to this problem depends on Knowledge (of the data), Process (making relevant data available to the right person at the right time) and analytical Tools which are fit for purpose.
Knowledge and understanding of the data is dependent on the professional users of that data. For example, one expects a clinician to understand all the nuances of a procedure taking place in an Acute setting and the significance of all fields (bits of data) contained in a record about that procedure. A layman (IT) can look and read the information but may need to be guided on what is vital in the context and what is not. IT professionals can be guilty of guessing what an End User (in this case a clinician) might want to see but not understanding what is vital. This means, in a report key information can exist but is hidden by too much other information, so its significance is lost. Both parties have a responsibility to avoid this outcome.
So here is the rub, is all this data leveraged in a way that drives up productivity and efficiency generally within the NHS? This is critical in an era where we have an increasingly ageing population but with more and more treatments available, this is a recipe for continuous upward pressure on costs; and this pressure is not going to go away. Is the data made available on a timely basis to the widest possible audience that can use it to good effect to the benefit of everyone? Probably not. There is, of course, a huge elephant in this room called Information Governance (confidentiality to you and me), but this shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier. Data anonymization is a well understood technique so no identifiable patient details need to be revealed if the data is circulated more widely. There is an argument that even revealing some aspects of the demographic details of data may be too revealing but if you choose to get too cute about all of this nothing would get shared. There will always be the possibility that the data could be used for the wrong reasons but that needs to be managed, not used as a reason for not sharing the data with appropriate parties. So, in a perfect world is the NHS able to leverage this data? The answer, as always, is yes and no. Yes, because somewhere you will find within this huge organization centers of excellence when it comes to use of data; however, unlike bad news, good news doesn’t always travel fast so good practice is not necessarily communicated, let alone acted upon.
By comparison and alarmingly you will still find data analysts within the NHS beavering away using inappropriate systems (often spreadsheet-based), trying to make sense of all this gold dust and struggling to deliver meaningful results and/or within a meaningful timeframe. This leads to extreme inefficiency.
The retail industry has for decades ‘sweated’ its data assets to become more competitive and ultimately this has benefited the consumer with better products, better choice, better service.
Shouldn’t the NHS be encouraged to ‘sweat’ its enormously valuable data assets (i.e. become a smart NHS) to help drive transformational change, becoming more efficient and which will ultimately benefit the patient with better services. When we have answered that question in the affirmative we will know we are onto a winner.
With evolving cyber threats facing the NHS and other healthcare organisations, addressing cyber security must be a priority for all organisations handling patient records and sensitive data.
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