Is the NHS big data bubble about to burst?

We live in exciting times. Digital technology and the data driven nature of business is creating new products and services that anticipate and match our individual needs. The next industrial revolution is coming, and data is the new steel.

For the NHS, one of the greatest opportunities of this revolution lies in population health management – a discipline that enables the identification and management of high-cost, high-need population cohorts, and supports a preventative healthcare agenda. Underpinned by population health analytics, we will find the missing million, the frequent flyers, the outliers. We will design and deploy innovative packages of care and deliver them through an augmented workforce of technology-savvy clinicians and AI algorithms. Well, that’s the dream…

However, we urgently need a sensible conversation about the practicalities of deploying such technology and leveraging value from a big data platform.

Despite pockets of investment, overall digital maturity across the provider sector remains low.

The challenges
For population health analytics to deliver value, comprehensive patient records are needed, incorporating information from GPs, local authorities, community, mental health and acute trusts, among others. These records must ‘talk the same language’ and contain the clinical depth to support analysis.

Many providers are still using paper or are digitising paper records or producing un-coded, free text notes, limiting the potential for analysis. Despite pockets of investment, overall digital maturity across the provider sector remains low.

How to move forward
There are ways to ensure the NHS is well placed to realise the benefits from population health and wider digital innovation, including:

  1. Expediting investment in provider digital maturity, further embedding of EPR solutions and the complete elimination of paper (including electronic versions of it).
  2. Embarking on a nationwide programme to identify best practice and new solutions to develop BI capabilities.
  3. Developing a model for assessing the quality and value of clinical datasets for population health projects, covering completeness, lineage, clinical content and coding depth.
  4. Building the analytics capability needed to leverage population health solutions through a national data science recruitment scheme, alongside a development programme to help managers and clinicians get the best from the data they generate.
  5. Changing the technology-driven nature of these projects to include more clinicians in the process of defining use cases, hypothesis, datasets and protocols of use for population health platforms. Ultimately, it is clinicians who will extract value from these solutions and react accordingly.

Smaller scale analytics projects may be the best way to develop the capabilities needed to make future population health analytics initiatives a success.

Proceed with caution
Population health analytics platforms are going to be a key tool in securing the future of the NHS. But there is a significant risk that NHS time and public money could be wasted on well-intentioned platforms that don’t deliver a genuine shift in approach, unless we improve overall digital maturity, plug the skills gaps and engage with organisations to navigate the path to better processes and systems.

The new industrial revolution is coming – let’s make sure our steel is resilient enough for the job.

This is an edited version of the original article produced for NHS Confederation on 13th September 2018. To view the full article, visit the NHS Voices blog.