Professionalising the analytics role in the NHS

Posted : November 26, 2020 - /

Andi Orlowski, non-executive director at the association of professional healthcare analysts (AphA) and Director of the Health Economics Unit, reflects on the academic paper Bringing NHS data analysis into the 21st century by Goldacre et al.

I have long championed the amazing work of fellow public sector analytical colleagues and the need to increase analytics capability and capacity within the NHS. I am really proud to say that raising the profile of the analytical profession is an important part of my new role with AphA, as its lead for collaboration and clinical engagement.

I encourage all NHS colleagues, analytical and clinical to read Goldacre et al on professionalising analytics in the NHS which clearly sets out this ambition. The killer line for me in the paper is ‘To capitalise on opportunities to improve health and care, we need the data and outstanding data analysis’.

This raises an important distinction – data isn’t an end in itself; professional analytics are also needed to make a crucial difference to the efficiency and quality of care delivered within the NHS, both now and when planning for the future.

Recognising skills and expertise

The paper argues that, if the NHS analyst workforce were supported by ‘clear career trajectories and training opportunities’, it would be possible to build a modern, open and inclusive culture of improvement.

I feel very few NHS analysts see a clear career pathway when they join. This especially applies for those talented colleagues that don’t want to be managers but instead want to further specialise in their fields. With progression though Agenda for Change bands often linked to financial and management responsibility we need to find appropriate ways to renumerate those that want to become experts, not Directors, and keep the talent inside the NHS.

Encouraging colleagues to publish and present their work internally and externally (get them to those clinical conferences to share their work), ensuring due recognition for their outputs and sharing with them the outcomes and impact their work has had helps. This raises awareness of not only their talent but helps clinical colleagues and system leaders the value we can bring to health outcomes.

One of the key issues raised in the paper is that many NHS data analysts are classified as ‘admin/clerical’ rather than ‘scientific/clinical’. Analysts in the NHS build many clinical decision tools like risk stratification models, they undertake population segmentation, evaluate interventions and new care pathways, build case finding algorithms and numerous other decision aids to help direct resources to care for our populations! All of our work is scientific! Much of the work is clinical in nature and analysts play a huge role in how care is delivered.

It may seem like a small thing, changing our classification, but I feel it would mean a lot and also show that NHS colleagues have a better understanding of the work we do.

Sharing knowledge is key

The issue of sharing knowledge is also a key area for the NHS to address – with the paper’s authors explaining that those analytics are ‘typically done behind closed doors’, which means that any learning isn’t easily shared or sense-checked by peers. This can be addressed through an investment in open analytic methods such as re-usable scripts and open source tools including R, Python and Jupyter notebooks.

Managers must support a culture of sharing across the NHS. We should be proud to share our work, code and approaches! Let’s build a public resource library, a creative commons, that organisations across the country could call on, sharing learning and increasing the value of the work carried out by individual data analysts. It could be housed on FutureNHS or something else but the real value in our work isn’t in the difference it can make to one organisation, but the difference it can make across the entire NHS.

Organisations including AphA and the NHS-R Community need to continue to promote conversation and collaboration around these shared resources by bringing the analyst community together. We need to involve further clinical colleagues and system leaders! Get them exposed to the work, let them see how fantastic our analysts are – and that’s something I’m happy to support as a non-executive director.

Analysts can’t work in a vacuum

Context is crucial when it comes to the effective application of data analysis. The teams doing the work need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the data so that they can mitigate any concerns about its accuracy and completeness; they also need the ability to communicate what the analysis means.

So, NHS analysts should not be asked to work in a vacuum, but be fully embedded within teams, which the paper’s authors suggest should include analysts, clinicians, managers, researchers, software engineers and outstanding communicators. Analysts are not an add on resource to projects, they have

With this embedding should come a greater understanding of data analysis among the other team members, allowing them to ‘ask better questions’ and use the data to make a real difference for services on the ground. With a greater parity of understanding around the benefits – and limitations – of data and its analysis, commissioners, managers and clinicians can better maximise the opportunities that it offers.

This greater understanding among team members will require an increase in data literacy and dedicated training, which will also help managers to decide when they need to supplement their in-house data skills with outsourced expert help.

Collaboration across the NHS community

We need to inspire analysts across the NHS, value their input, ask them what questions we should be asking and seek their thoughts on how we can maximise the benefit of their work. By harnessing their skills, supporting their development and sharing best practice across the country, and by making sure we’re not duplicating efforts but learning from each other, we can support a real transformation in data analysis in the NHS.

We must work together across the health and care economy to bring this to fruition, and maximise our opportunities to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of care.

Read the full report – Bringing NHS data analysis into the 21st century