Data and social care: how do we break down the barriers?

The new draft health and social care data strategy (Data Saves Lives) marks the next steps in a wider conversation about how data will be utilised to support social care providers, service users and commissioners. It looks to ensure that the data and technology architecture underpinning the health and care system can work easily together to make better use of data, no matter where it is held.

The strategy sets out the aim to give leaders up-to-date data to make better decisions and help the care system run at its best. So how should we interpret “better data”?

The term “single source of truth”, where all data is brought together into a single data store, is one we’ve been hearing for decades. Phrases such as “data lakes” and “boiling the ocean” are banded around. However, when it comes to accessing better information, this may not be the most worthwhile goal. Instead, the new data strategy emphasises sharing and interoperability over consolidation. For many social care providers and organisations working with limited budgets and resources, data is often stored on various systems and spreadsheets. It’s easy to interpret a single source of truth as a “single system” but doing so can hamper innovation and the adoption of best of breed solutions.

A key consideration when looking at any system is the needs of its users. For instance, a GP may want to view a single patient under their care and see a detailed medical history. In contrast with this, commissioners who are working more at the population health level will require aggregated results so they can examine trends and effectiveness of public health initiatives. So, a single source of truth might be a lofty goal but having a source of truth that encompasses the main data points is a more achievable one.

But how do social care providers such as local authorities go about achieving this and what considerations need to be put in place to make it a success and not another failed IT programme?

Understandable, accessible, and standardised data

Simply put, it’s vital that any new system has buy-in at all levels. From the top of the organisation to technical staff and those on the ground. Previously, there has been the view that if you put all the data you have in one place, that will solve the problem. But that data needs to be understandable, accessible, and standardised. It’s important to think about things like terminology, to ensure key words and phrases can be understood by everyone who will be accessing the system.

It’s best to start small and pick the highest value datasets first. Focusing on them and then building and investing on top of that. By bringing the highest value datasets together into a centralised repository, it’s then possible to use a best of breed tool to put that data into the hands of commissioners and directors but also the people on the ground who will need to access it daily.

Try to avoid implementing a new system with a big bang. By slowly building and taking an iterative approach, you get early warning signs if certain aspects are straying off course. Projects like this aren’t just about bringing the data together, it’s really about what that data allows providers and organisations to do, things like answering questions and making services better.

Access to better information

Digital tools are most effective when they are accessible to everyone in the organisation, regardless of their technical capabilities. Any new system needs to be easy to use, secure, requires very little training and comes with the ability to apply appropriate user permissions. Although some users might not need the same level of sophisticated analytics as commissioners or those at director level, exploratory capabilities can empower all users to find the information they need. It’s not a case of swapping out systems but rather the ability to bring data together where you need to, so that you can deliver a 360-degree view.

By putting the power to search for information in the hands of users, it stops technical people being the information gatekeepers and frees them up to work on more high value projects. Look towards systems that offer self-service reporting and analytics while, at the same time, placing tight controls on what data and what actions the user is allowed to perform. So, a GP can see detailed information about just their patients, but a commissioner can see aggregate results on the whole patient population.

The beauty of making analytics self-service is that is allows for the user to explore ideas with minimum friction and cost to the organisation. When you combine this with the ability to collaborate, share and review, you have a route to removing bottlenecks, promoting innovation, and improving patient care.