HSJ Cancer Virtual Forum

12 August 2021

COVID-19 and cancer: Our opportunity to maximise recovery in the NHS and beyond

Andi Orlowski, Director at the Health Economics Unit (HEU), presented at the HSJ National Cancer Virtual Forum on 8 April 2021. It was one of a series of HSJ webinars that the HEU team supported.

When I took part in the Virtual Cancer Forum on 8 April, the UK was still operating under COVID-19 restrictions; while the country (and NHS) has since been opening up in stages, the legacy of the pandemic is clear – a widening of health inequalities and a backlog in care for other conditions, including cancer.

Using data to support recovery

The NHS and its patients have both had a tough time since the pandemic hit, and the report Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review identifies that we should use this time not just to return to service as normal, but to do better.

The paper looks at inequalities in the death rates from COVID-19 and how some groups and areas have been more affected than others; the effect of measures to contain the virus on social and economic inequalities and mental and physical wellbeing; and what needs to be done to build back fairer.

Data will play a key role in this recovery journey, shining a light on which groups of people and types of cancer have been hit hardest through reduced levels of referrals and delayed diagnostics. We shared data at a [HSJ Forum in March] showing that age, ethnicity and deprivation were key factors in the types referrals that were slowest to recover. We need to understand where the gaps are so that we can target and close them.

Drawing on NHS analyst expertise

I have been heartened by the amount of excellent work being completed and shared by NHS analysts – these are the right kind of people to help the NHS recovery and planning. NHS analysts are more than capable and the data available from places like DataCan, as discussed by my fellow presenter James Peach, gives them the tools they need.

I wrote recently in the National Health Executive magazine on the key role of data in solving the health inequalities commissioning conundrum, and in that I highlighted that addressing inequalities isn’t the role of the NHS alone. It’s a key role for the integrated care systems that are bringing local partners together across the country.

Local analysts from the NHS, local authorities and other partners know and understand that bias is built into the data collected and they can counter and mitigate it – local projects benefit best from people who understand the local data and place.

Moving forwards

We now have a clear opportunity to address the health inequalities that have been highlighted, working with data and analysts to plan for recovery.

There will be a key focus moving forwards on who was disproportionately affected by the pandemic and DataCan and the new OpenSafely data will allow us to look at oncology datasets. It will be interesting to see over the next few years what is revealed by the work on outcomes, inequalities and how we prioritise patients during the recovery. As a health system, we will be asked how we used what we learned to do better for the most affected, and we will be held accountable.

Find out more at https://virtual-cancerseries.hsj.co.uk/ or email heather.humphreys2@nhs.net.

Author: Andi Orlowski

About Andi Orlowski

Andi gets excited about all the latest developments in population health analytics, and he is proud of the work we do in the HEU to help our partners plan ahead and stay on the cutting edge of healthcare

Meet Andi

Our specialist services

This is a small selection of all the solutions we can provide.

Evidence generation

Understanding whether new care pathways and interventions are effective, efficient, and deliver value for money

Population health management

Using allocative efficiency techniques and population health analytics to improve value and deliver the best care possible

Advanced analytics

Using advanced techniques in machine learning, data science and casual inference to understand the biggest questions in health


Sharing our vast knowledge to develop NHS capability through training, research design advice and quality assurance