What role can data scientists and analysts play in the workforce of our healthcare systems and how can they work effectively alongside clinicians and operational managers?
These were subjects that Health Economics Unit (HEU) Director Andi Orlowski and Emma Wright, Director of Information & Business Intelligence at Northern Care Alliance NHS Group, recently discussed as guest speakers at the NHS Digital Academy Residential.
The talk opened by examining how well we understand our population and their health needs. Andi and Emma outlined some of the challenges faced by data analysts, including the lack of availability of data and the need for a much broader deck of information that spans primary care, secondary care, social care, mental health, community and other datasets like environment data.
The session was well attended by professionals from the NHS, Public Health England and Health and Social Care Northern Ireland. Questions from delegates focused on what capabilities are needed in the workforce to better utilise data and how to bridge the gap between the work of clinicians, senior managers and analysts.
Alison Singleton, who runs the NHS Digital Academy Programme, said: “Andi is an experienced and knowledgeable practitioner who speaks from experience. He can relate to participants in a way that others more removed from the service are unable to do. Given that this programme aims to develop digital health leaders as professionals in their own right, this is exactly what we needed.”
Harnessing the power of in-house analytics
As Andi and Emma responded to delegates’ questions, a clear theme quickly emerged, outlining how more value needs to be placed on the work of the in-house analytics team.
“There’s a frustrating trend where the exciting projects are being outsourced while the day-to-day work gets given to in-house analysts,” Andi said. “It should be the other way around. In-house analysts have the same, if not better, skills, they just need the opportunity. It’s up to clinicians and managers to help make this happen and bring the internal analysts into the projects that they’re most passionate about.”
Emma emphasised the need to place value on the right skills when recruiting analysts, too. “We need to move away from the premise that an analyst’s core function is to do performance and statutory reporting. It’s about more than finding your way around a spreadsheet!”
This concept was backed up by a short straw poll during the session which asked delegates about their perception of the work of their in-house analytics teams. An overwhelming majority (67%) believed their main function was performance reporting, closely followed by 56% saying statutory reporting.
Turning information into insight
The panel agreed that analytics teams often have the capabilities to transform billions of lines of data, but the clinical side has a huge role to play in helping them turn this ‘information into insight’.
Advice for managers and clinicians looking to use analytics to plan a service or change a process was to start with a clear purpose.
“Knowing what you want to achieve and what questions you are seeking to answer will ensure that the outcomes will drive action,” Emma advised. “And if you’re putting in new systems and solutions, look at how you structure data within those systems and be mindful of its secondary uses so it can have another purpose.”
Helping boards make better data decisions
This led to the question of whether senior managers and boards understand what decision support is and how they can harness the potential of data to make better decisions for their services.
Knowing how data can help to make better decisions is key, but it isn’t the day job of senior managers to understand this potential, the panel explained. To make better data decisions, boards should include an analytics representative who will not only explain what’s possible with data and what capabilities there are in-house, but more crucially, to question if the board is asking the right questions.
Upskilling senior staff can be about breaking down the big decisions into smaller ones, for example. On large-scale projects with big budgets, an in-built evaluation system will show how much the services are used before you allocate further spending on a project roll-out.
“Look at how many people are using it, what kind of people are using it and the turnover. Explain to the board that these are big costs and evaluating the data of the first part of the project can help inform whether further spending is necessary,” Andi advised.
“This kind of critical thinking is needed at a board level. It will help senior managers to unpick the data and understand what’s most important for them in their hospital or service and move away from only using data to prove that targets have been met.”
And to be a data-driven healthcare organisation you need to use insights to augment, said Emma. “It’s about how analysts support the process and how they drive senior staff to the right questions – and ultimately, to the right decisions.”
The takeaway points from the discussion were that clinicians and managers should:
- Involve analysts early on in the project plan
- Use in-house analysts for the projects where they can make a real difference
- Outsource the day-to-day analytics work that’s less interesting
- Find out what interests your analytics team to make the best use of their knowledge
- Work as a team – talk face-to-face about what’s possible
- Have a purpose – understand the questions you want to answer or the problems you want to solve before you embark on a data project
- Have a secondary use for the data
- Make the data as open as possible so it can be accessed later
Author: 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