UK health data strategy set to embed pandemic emergency measures

By on 08/04/2021
Data sharing at clinician level has improved during the pandemic, noted Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX. Credit: Mart Productions/Pexels

A forthcoming data strategy from NHSX, the UK’s digital health unit, will advocate for some emergency changes implemented during the pandemic to be sustained, the organisation’s chief executive Matthew Gould told an event on Wednesday.

Speaking at an online session hosted by the London-based Institute for Government think tank, Gould said that the unit’s health and social data strategy will “lock in some of the benefits that we’ve seen over the past year”. While some rules are “appropriate only to an emergency”, he said, others “have a really serious benefit and don’t lead to inappropriate or unsafe use of patient data, and we’ll want to lock them in.”

Gould said the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted both a “can-do spirit” and a more permissive legislative environment, both of which have helped Britain’s public sector to improve how it shares and uses data. He added that tackling the pandemic has led to data being better used to improve health outcomes at three points: at patient level, system level and in research.

Three tiers of improvement

The first level on which data sharing has improved is amongst clinicians. “One of the most useful things we did during the pandemic was… to free up the flow of information so that doctors, or nurses, or whoever [was] seeing patients could know what they needed to know about them,” Gould said.

For example, according to the NHSX website, during the pandemic “a comprehensive medical summary from an individual’s [local doctor] records is being made available to other practices, NHS 111 and other health and care services”.

This helps to improve treatment. “A clinician seeing a patient needs to know certain things about them [a patient], and if data doesn’t move with the patient through the system then there is a very real risk,” said Gould.

“There’s also a sort of optimising the system opportunity,” said Gould. He pointed to the establishment of the NHS Data Store, which was set up early in 2020 to combine data from dozens of sources, ranging from hospital numbers to oxygen supplies.

The store allows government and health service users to “look at trends to monitor the spread of the virus and implement appropriate measures to ensure services and support is available to patients”, according to the NHS England website.

“We were able to give the NHS a chance to manage the crisis… on the basis of a seriously quantitative understanding of where the pressures were,” Gould said.

Finally, changes were made “to allow data to be used for research, safely and appropriately, but incredibly effectively,” said Gould. For example, he said, “we were able to aggregate the data that allowed the trials that showed that Dexamethasone was an effective therapy.”

Changing tides

Two forces have underpinned these improvements, according to Gould.

One is a mindset shift: “The thing that I would… love to bottle from the last year and keep forever is the can-do spirit,” Gould said. “The single-minded collective determination around a shared, compelling objective that switched the presumption away from not doing something to doing something.”

Shifts in the legislation underpinning NHSX’s work are another factor. The emergency powers granted to the UK government to tackle the pandemic included various changes in the rules governing sharing and use of health data.

Gould did not give specific examples of interventions his team have found useful. But relevant moves could include control of patient information (COPI) notices being sent to a variety of organisations including local doctors, local authorities and arms-length bodies. These notices ordered their recipients to share patient data with NHS Digital for the purpose of tackling the pandemic.

All data is local

Meanwhile, speaking at the same event, May-N Leow, head of the local digital collaboration unit at Britain’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said a fund set up at the start of the pandemic to support local data projects has yielded remarkable results.

The fund received 125 applications from 94 of the UK’s local councils, she said, with 11 projects selected for support.

She gave a range of examples of good practice, including the nothern city of Newcastle’s “How Busy is Toon” tool. This uses real-time data from CCTV cameras and car parks to estimate how busy the city is for residents planning when to go out.

Greater Manchester also “built a shared tool… to support local analysts to see the impact of covid on metrics influencing demand” for children’s services, bringing together a range of data being collected by local authorities within the region.

Overall the pandemic has, she said, acted as a “catalyst”, giving local councils “laser like focus” to improve their use of data.

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