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Paul Heather, Head of Public Sector & Health, Tableau Software, discusses how the NHS is using data to support preventative, predictive and personalised care

Until now, life expectancy has steadily been on the rise, with children born now expecting to live until they are approximately 80 years old. As a consequence of improved living standards and advances in healthcare, this trend isn’t without its drawbacks. Our population is experiencing more chronic illnesses than ever before, putting an incredible strain on our social and medial services.

In fact, three-quarters of all 75-year-olds are projected to have at least one long-term medical condition, according to NHS figures. With the number of patient appointments soaring to an overwhelming 243 million a year, it’s clear that new pioneering solutions are needed to maintain the high levels of care the country’s constituents expect, whilst simultaneously driving efficiencies.

The launch of NHSX in February, a joint unit under the NHS umbrella, was formed to help drive digital transformation within health and social care, as well as establish a benchmark for standards and best practice for how data and technology across the organisation should be utilised.

Extracting value from patient data

That’s not to say medical professionals are yet to embark on collecting patient data – they have been doing it for decades. Prior to tech buzzwords such as big data came on the scene, the NHS understood how collecting data effectively could be used to inform strategy for preventative, predictive and personalised care.

It’s the ability to analyse the data and extract insights from it is where data’s role has a critical part to play in upgrading patient care and improving how public sector organisations and systems within healthcare are managed. By studying data it is possible to identify areas for improvement and continuously monitor the quality of service delivery.

The benefits of taking a data-led approach are substantial. By using information more efficiently and taking advantage of data analytics, one report found the NHS could save between £16 billion and £66 billion every year. So, what’s holding them back? To build a data-driven culture across the complicated monolith that is the NHS is a huge undertaking.

A collaborative approach to data

The NHS is a fragmented organisation, which is also true of its data. This often makes it difficult for employees to understand when and what data sets can be shared with other departments. With this reason often cited as a key roadblock for change, one of the main goals for NHSX is to set a common set of data standards and provide best practice around transparency, data sharing, and open data.

Taking a look at NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE/I), the body responsible for overseeing 250 Foundation Trusts and NHS Trusts, as well as independent providers that provide NHS-funded care, they have successfully managed to harness the potential of open data to deliver better quality care for its patients.

Using visual analytics, the NHSE/I’s Analytics Hub enhances NHS services, using open data to pinpoint issues and areas where improvement is needed. They’ve even used National A&E data to create an interactive, data-driven dashboard to monitor performance.

Mridula Sori, Analytics Development Lead at NHSI explained: “Each day we receive a report from every hospital containing A&E performance information on everything from the number of ambulances queuing outside to how long each patient waited to be treated. This information is automatically updated in the A&E dashboard, giving regulators, winter room operations teams and hospitals a clear, up-to-date view of performance across the whole country.”

As a result of being able to visualise the data, the department found it was much easier to understand which hospital A&E departments were performing well in key areas. As a result, this triggered dialogue amongst the trusts about why that situation had manifested itself.

“This collaboration encourages the sharing of best practice, which quickly leads to higher quality care for all A&E patients,” Mridula added.

Decision-making in real-time

Another example is the Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust. When it came to engaging clinical staff who were not necessarily experienced in data visualisation, Ella Worsdale, Head of Information witnessed the advantages of a persistent approach to data visualisation.

Prior to using data analytics software, Ella’s team habitually depended on Excel and manual SQL queries for analysis. But error easily crept in, compromising the quality of the data and resulting in long development cycles. It also meant that upon publication, any reports were immediately out of date. It was no surprise that a majority of the management team just didn’t trust the data and simply deleted reports as soon as they arrived in their inbox.

Adopting instinctive self-service data analytics software has transformed the team. It is now possible for Ella and her colleagues to deliver real-time data to over 600 operational managers, which they can refer to when making decisions about how the Trust operates day-to-day, improves patient care and manages to fund.

Ella commented: “We needed a technology that really got people on board to engage once we’d collected the information; in terms of getting it back to them so we could give them some actual insight as to what’s going on with our services and our patients. You need to get them on board to see how it’s going to work on a day-to-day basis, and what benefits it’s going to bring. Unless they see a benefit, people generally don’t engage.”

As a result of the technology, Ella’s colleagues began to have far greater confidence in the information they were receiving and were happy to make an important decision off the back of it.

An exciting future

Throughout the NHS there are hundreds of data evangelists, just like Ella, who are taking advantage of data analysis to make the organisation work better.

The key for instilling change is building a culture that embraces data but via a means that is simple to understand and inclusive for all. This way, anybody who works within the NHS will have a way to question this institution’s data that enables them to make decisions that can genuinely improve its various internal processes and systems.

Giving the NHS’s 1.7 million workers proper data analytics tools will have an enormous impact, and so far we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. As more NHS staff, at every level and across all departments, have access to data analytics tools, patient care will transform for the better and the results will become clearer, demonstrating the influence that data can have. Combining the power of data with staff who have the correct analysis tools to view and extract value from the data, presents a very exciting and transformative future for the organisation.


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