Jem Rashbass, NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Data and Analytical Services, provides a fascinating insight into the crucial role of data to enable us to work at speed during a global pandemic
Data has long been dismissed as the boring cousin to its cooler tech relative.
For too long, it’s been resigned to a backstage role – manning the lights for zippy new apps and technologies.
It’s unfortunate that it’s taken a global pandemic for data to take centre stage, but if one good thing can come from COVID-19, then I would hope it’s the way that data has enabled us to work at speed during such a challenging time.
Many of us have dreamed of a data-driven NHS for a long time. What a legacy it would be if we could say we went on to achieve this on the back of a pandemic.
Coronavirus: New ways of working
Coronavirus has completely changed our way of working. From a data perspective, it’s been an opportunity to look at things differently and to modernise at speed.
Decisions that would normally have taken weeks or months are now having to be made in days. Getting data to where it is needed, quickly and safely, is essential to enabling experts to do vital research, to plan the response to the pandemic and to make decisions based on real-time evidence.
Despite this great pressure, it’s been imperative that we continue to meet our own high standards by adhering to all of our usual information governance and security safeguards. High IG standards are a bar we are not prepared to lower, and data will only ever be shared when it is safe, legal and ethical to do so.
We may be sharing more data than ever before, but this is no excuse for letting standards slip. This is data’s moment in the spotlight. The performance needs to be flawless.
Finding treatments for COVID-19
Our Secondary Uses Service (more commonly known as SUS+) is a routine healthcare data collection in England, which is typically used for healthcare planning, supporting payments and commissioning policy, development and research.
This summer, it was also used by scientists at the University of Oxford as part of their RECOVERY trial to assess the effectiveness of potential treatments for coronavirus.
This resulted in the low dose-steroid treatment dexamethasone being found to help patients who have contracted coronavirus.
The study suggests it can cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators and by a fifth for those on oxygen.
This is a fantastic example of using an existing robust dataset to try and solve a new and evolving problem.
Predicting demand for intensive care
Over at the University of Cambridge, trials have begun on a system that will use machine learning to help predict the upcoming demand for intensive care (ICU) beds and ventilators needed to treat patients with coronavirus.
This COVID 19 Capacity Planning and Analysis System (CPAS) has been developed by NHS Digital data scientists and a team of Cambridge researchers to support hospitals to plan more accurately and help ensure that resources are deployed to best effect.
We’re supporting the delivery of real services in real-time that will help to make a real difference.
Understanding the risk to ethnic minorities
NHS Digital data also played a major part in a study by academics at the University of California and the University of Cambridge – looking at the increased risk to people from ethnic minorities from COVID-19.
Our unidentifiable data provided a cohort of over 78,000 patients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, focusing on the 72,000 among this group for whom the data provided reliable information on ethnicity.
The results found that individuals from a BAME background are more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and more likely to be admitted to hospital and intensive care, compared to the general population of England.
It found that people from ethnic minorities accounted for disproportionate levels of positive cases, hospitalisation and ITU admissions, particularly amongst younger age groups.
This comprehensive analysis has been instrumental in focusing further research in this area, which we hope will go on to help save many lives.
Aside from being data-driven, all of these projects have one other thing in common: they have all been front-page news in recent weeks.
The fact that we all wake up on a morning and try to understand the latest coronavirus figures is a real shift in people’s view of data.
Our online data dashboards help the public, media and experts to visualise the current state of play – by providing real-time information on subjects such as coronavirus testing, coronavirus triage through NHS Pathways and the Shielded Patient List.
It’s refreshing to see so many more stories in the media based on data and evidence.
The power of data has come to the fore. It’s absolutely vital that we do all we can to keep it there.
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