The importance of knowing ‘why’ when using data | HSJ Partners

The development and use of digital technologies in recent years has led to a growth in the volumes of data that is being collected, stored, and shared within organisations. It fascinates me to see how data now influences every part of our lives from recommendations to new TV shows or which adverts or friends we see content from first on social media. The value of data as an asset is appreciated across many other business sectors but it is not as well developed across the healthcare sector.

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Data exists everywhere in the NHS

It’s not that data does not exist within the NHS or the wider healthcare sector. Across healthcare providers, vast quantities of data reside on multiple systems and yet just having data is not enough. It is time to move on from simply pursuing volume and “big data” as the priorities and focus on the actual value of data as a strategic and operational asset. In practical terms this means the enablement of employees across the organization to use the right data at the right time, ensuring it is in a format where it can be used efficiently to make business decisions based upon fact. So, it is clearly not just about having data but more about the fundamental culture an organization must have to generate value from it.

In order to stand a chance of making sense of the data landscape and truly understanding the “why” element, this requires an organization to couple their access to data itself with a high level of data maturity. Key features of this maturity include:

  • Senior leaders who champion the use of data-driven decision making
  • A unified view of all data held within the organization
  • An operating model that increases data democratization and literacy across the organization
  • Data governance and ethics that are embedded seamlessly within all data activities
  • Developed strategic data capabilities, products, and services through agile development practices designed to meet user needs
  • Cross business function collaboration to support the delivery of data driven activities

Why data is not always leveraged as an asset?

If you were to reflect on your own organisation’s data, I would expect that at least one if not all the below are how you or your colleagues see the data that is held internally.

  • Not always accessible to those that need it
  • Insufficiently detailed to answer strategic or operational priorities
  • Of variable quality – just too wrong to use
  • Out of date
  • Disjointed across too many systems

This is often because we have forgotten the reasons we started to collect and distribute the data in the first place. Users are not engaged so what is produced does not meet needs and never gets used.

If we consistently sought a user led approach to data collection and curation, we could potentially enable employees across an organization to use the right data at the right time ensuring it is in a format where it can be used efficiently to make business decisions based upon fact .

The benefits this change in approach could bring will not only improve the use of data in the organization but the entire organization to:

  • Improve business outcomes through better insight
  • Could scope, design and assure service improvements
  • Improve compliance and security of data
  • Have better data quality and improved communication
  • Reduce the cost in inefficient use of staff time
  • Produce more timely and efficient access to key information
  • Create interoperability between systems

Where to start

To fully appreciate the benefits of data led approaches there must be effort put into where we are and what are the areas of focus to be able to provide the mechanisms that effectively measure impact. If we don’t, how can we assure that modeling waiting lists for elective recovery, optimizing outpatients, utilizing theatres, or hospital flow are reliable to manage services? Data can be the real catalyst for change in challenging and uncertain times.

These two approaches below are a great starting point:

Data discoveries are useful if you have identified a pre-defined question to explore ie to build a data repository or development of a proof of concept. In this case there may not be clarity on how this can be achieved, and you need an evidence-based view on the realistic delivery of the idea. Equally there may be a question of what your current data landscape is. In this case you may be looking to identify what opportunities you have to use your data in a more efficient and beneficial way.

If you have a vision of what you want to achieve – a data strategy will enable you to identify a long-term plan and target operating model that defines the technology, processes, skills to manage an organisation’s information assets and sets out the roadmap to realizing strategic and operational objectives.

In summary, just having data is not enough. It is an asset that needs to be meticulously developed to provide actionable insight to users so they can go beyond the “so what?” to the “can do” to solve identified challenges now but also more proactively in the future so the NHS can continue to deliver high quality, safe care that is sustainable.

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