Circle Opinion

A practical approach to solving the NHS data conundrum

Susan Brooks

To understand why your NHS organisation is data-rich but insight-poor, you need a system-wide perspective as a basis for structured change

The potential of NHS data is exciting. It’s also accessible – there are proven examples of effective and constructive data use that provide valuable reporting and insight for clinical service development. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

NHS leaders know that NHS data within and outside their organisation is infinite, complex and continually collected. It’s very powerful when it’s analysed effectively, so the insight can be channelled to the right person in a way that they can understand and use. However, for the most part, this doesn’t happen enough.

Managers and analysts work hard every day to try and generate the insight that’s so desperately needed. They’re typically thwarted by scarce resources, time, understanding, technology and specialist skill. There’s often a lack of consistency, momentum and sponsorship across the system and organisation.

This holds back ICS, Trusts, teams and individuals from delivering the best service to patients and optimising their strategy, resources and operational plans.

NHS leaders know that they need to crack the data conundrum, but it’s a tall order without taking focus away from daily priorities

In such a complex and busy environment, it’s hard for any individual to grasp the system-wide position. There’s rarely time or opportunity to step back to survey the scene across an organisation or connected entities.

As external CACI healthcare consultants, we have a privileged viewpoint, because we work with a range of NHS Trusts and can identify common challenges, barriers and imperatives. By applying this insight, we help NHS leaders access a system-wide perspective that can make a big difference in achieving their data effectiveness goals.

Current challenges for NHS data

  • There’s a massive volume of complex, constantly changing data
  • It’s held in many data sources and repositories
  • There are many users with diverse requirements
  • These users have widely different levels of data literacy and expertise
  • Trusts rely on a mix of modern and legacy systems and tools
  • Some departments have enjoyed greater investment than others
  • There are crucial governance issues, including patient privacy and data security

Identifying these top-line issues and how they are affecting service planning and delivery in your unique organisation is a key first step. There’s a clear need to approach the problem holistically. But squeezed budgets, limited resources and a lack of time stand in the way of major, system-wide projects. Everyone in the tightly stretched NHS is busy dealing with current workload already. There’s no appetite for launching an amorphous, resource-hungry transformation programme. Trusts need a structured, thorough and efficient approach to identify issues in a finite timeframe.

A practical approach to inclusive, system-wide data effectiveness

Traditionally, data transformation tends to mean adopting new products or technologies. The problem is that they only offer a tactical solution to one small part of the overarching data problem. Worse, they can sometimes aggravate issues in other parts of the system.

We observe that data architecture is at the core of system inadequacies for many NHS Trusts. Data feeds and flows are poorly constructed and insufficiently flexible to meet the diverse needs of those who work with data and need the insights generated from it.

Addressing the data challenge from a user perspective

Delivering effective data solutions and tools relies on a clear understanding of what users really need from the data. We have identified three communities with distinct requirements:

Executives and leaders who demand trusted insight and high-level views of data. They work with KPI scorecards and look for drill-down access to data from individual divisions, programmes and patients, so they can explore strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and anomalies in performance by understanding the data behind them. They need current, historic and comparative data views.

Clinical leaders who need real-time and trend insight to help them predict demand for services. They need detailed waiting list information and data tracking that can drill down to programmes, wards and treatment functions so they can understand and assess demand and response. They use this to optimise day-to-day activities as well as in planning future service developments.

Analysts responsible for tailored and specific report generation across different periods. They want the capability to select data for specific organisations and to deliver data in different formats and channels to meet the different requirements of their users. Their productivity and output depend on detailed, centralised data that’s accurate and easy to work with.

To unlock the potential of your data you need to engage with all senior stakeholders, including clinicians, to understand their priorities and how they are currently using data in practice. Finding the resources and capability needed to take an objective look can be challenging. Some Trusts have engaged us to deliver a short, consultative engagement to provide a clear overview, without committing to excessive spend or investment in products.

Get the full picture with our Data Effectiveness white paper

We’ve pulled together the key points of our approach in this blog, but if you have time for a longer read, our white paper has more detail and examples of how the user-centred approach to defining data transformation priorities can work in practice. Download it free now.

If you’re ready to start a conversation about how our data effectiveness experience could help your organisation please get in touch with Susan Brooks in CACI’s NHS team.

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Susan Brooks