NHS must stop treating data analysis as a ‘clerical’ role

Posted : September 15, 2023 -

HSJ article link: https://www.hsj.co.uk/technology-and-innovation/nhs-must-stop-treating-data-analysis-as-a-clerical-role/7035547.article

Recognising data analysts as vital technical experts, not clerical staff, is essential for the NHS’s data-driven future and improved patient care, writes Andrew Barraclough and Dr Marc Farr

Bodies like AphA are working with NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to formalise exactly what analytics roles include.

We all know the NHS sits atop an incredible mine of health data: the lifetime records of tens of millions of patients going back 75 years. Vast and diverse, it’s one of the greatest stores of health data in the world.

This data can help managers make optimal use of their resources. It helps researchers develop new treatments, it can even help leaders make decisions that shape the health of populations.

But right now, we’re barely tapping into it.

At AphA, we believe one of the best ways to exploit the NHS’s data reserve is by properly developing the role of analysts as professional experts in every organisation. The key to making the most of our masses of data is growing expert teams who can understand it, explain it, and make predictions from it.

And right now, this couldn’t be more important. We’re on the cusp of an informatics revolution, as artificial intelligence develops at pace in healthcare and beyond. With the right expertise in place, the NHS can harness this tech for the benefit of millions of patients – and avoid its pitfalls. Responsible human hands are needed to guide AI systems away from bias and pluck meaningful insight from the noise.

But far too often in the NHS, data analytics is treated as an administrative function rather than a scientific profession.


What marks out technical professions from clerical roles?

Before we get into advances like AI, let’s get back to basics. What makes a profession technical?

Look at roles like doctors, nurses, and lawyers. Each of these careers has a series of milestones people need to reach before they can be considered professional in their chosen field. They need the right training and qualifications, and they need to continue learning as they progress through their careers to ensure they can make the best possible decisions for the people they are responsible for.

Familiarity with a common bank of knowledge is critical for technical roles, as are professional bodies that curate this information, uphold professional standards and provide communities and pathways to share best practices and drive the profession forward.

Although it’s a relatively young profession, data analysis in health and care has all these fundamentals in place.

A budding doctor will choose specific GCSEs and A-Levels so they can get into medical school, pass their exams and register with the GMC before specialising and joining a particular Royal College.

Likewise, a budding analyst may study maths at school, attain a computer science or maths degree, take a Masters in health informatics or consider an apprenticeship programme, get a job and an AphA membership and start building a portfolio of professional work.

This reads as a scientific role and not a clerical one.

Increasingly, bodies like AphA are working with NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to formalise exactly what analytics roles include. The terminology found in the National Competency Framework for Data Professionals in Health and Care – analyst, data scientist, engineer – reflects the expertise required for these careers.

NHS analysts use many of the same methods and tools as academic researchers to understand data. And they must be able to communicate their insights to decision-makers like managers.

Yet in the NHS, analysts still tend to be classed as administrative staff within their organisations.

Under Agenda for Change banding, for example, analyst salaries don’t simply lag behind those in the private sector — they’re often dwarfed by them.

Being an analyst isn’t just about crunching numbers and following algorithms. Investigating data involves interpretation at every level. Good analysts must have a keen understanding of the data and use their expertise to make subtle judgements throughout their work.

The NHS needs to start recognising analysts as technical experts, not as clerical or admin staff, to attract and retain professionals that, right now, may find the private sector more enticing.

Marc Farr, chief analytical officer at East Kent Hospitals and chair of Kent and Medway Integrated Care System’s analytics board says: “Analysts are incredibly valuable inside and outside the NHS. If we don’t reward them properly, they will just drift into the private sector.”

A lack of clear development opportunities beyond moving into management is a common frustration for NHS analysts. We learnt from the Goldacre review: “There’s no way for people who work in clinical informatics to prove themselves to be legitimate to the system. It’s not professionalised.”

AphA is working with the NHS to provide clear job descriptions and responsibilities that can be replicated by trusts across the country. Communities like AnalystX are sharing tools, methodologies and code to produce a bank of knowledge and best practices for professionals.

Making sure you properly recognise and reward analytics staff will help you recruit and retain experts who can use your organisation’s data to help you make the best decisions for the communities you serve.

And right now, it couldn’t be more important to grow these teams. Just in case you haven’t heard, we’re at a bit of a technological tipping point. Advances in AI are rapidly increasing the speed at which we can interpret data.

This tech is extremely powerful. It’s already helping clinicians spot cancer on medical images. Analysts can use AI can help reduce the administrative burden of updating records, predict patient outcomes and even forecast which hospital resources should be concentrated where.

But it’s also potentially risky, without responsible and expert human guidance, AI can hallucinate and provide meaningless information. It can produce biased results that risk worsening inequalities, rather than tackling them.

“Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionise what we can achieve with data. But it needs expert hands to guide it,” says AphA Chief Executive Officer Rony Arafin. “Analytics experts have the know-how to harness such technology and understand how it could be used to deliver actionable insights. But the NHS isn’t providing a nurturing environment for analytical workforce needed to attract, retain and develop them.”

“We want to work with senior leaders to make the UK’s health and care sector a competitive prospect for the data and analytics workforce. This will help leaders use their scarce resources more efficiently and provide a better, more personalised experience for patients.

We are at a point that it is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ option, it is essential and the time is now, we firmly believe that nurturing your analytics teams will improve patient outcomes and ultimately save and improve lives.”


Are you a leader working across health and care and believe that data is the new currency for transformation? Join us at the inaugural congress which combines HSJ’s access and understanding of NHS leadership challenges and AphA’s deep knowledge of the transformative potential of analytics for a unique and collaborative conversation.

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