Skip to main content

#OpenDataSavesLives: Session 40 - Analytics as a Profession

By Tazmin Chiles, Data & Innovation Consultant, Open Innovations

In our last Open Data Saves Lives session, we discussed how we train and recruit the next generation of analysts, and how we begin to address the data skills gap in the health sector. We were joined by 3 fantastic speakers:

  • James Freed - Deputy Director of the Digital Academy for Health and Care - What does it take to be a Data Literate Organisation?
  • Huw Davies - Consultant Analyst - NHS England/Davies/Furlong Consultants - Consistency in Professionalisation - The Role of The National Competency Framework
  • Andy Kemp - Partnerships Director, Generation - Training the Next Generation of Data Analysts

If you missed the session, you can also view the recording on YouTube.

James Freed

The NHS is changing - in light of the ‘Data Saves Lives’ strategy, which sets out how data will be used to improve the health and care of the population, ‘with the ultimate goal of having a health and care system that is underpinned by high-quality and readily available data’. In the Goldacre Review, Dr. Ben Goldacre sets out detailed practical recommendations for where to start, and a standard approach for the health service to conduct efficient and reproducible analysis of health data.

However the transition isn’t straightforward and, as James said, ‘although everyone now recognises that data is important, not everyone agrees on how important it is’.

A number of clinicians have told us that data collection for the purposes of research and ensuring quality of care is not part of business as usual. Any data collection is often therefore on top of their existing workload - a workload that is already stretched.

Clinicians don’t want to be thinking about data on top of treating patients. They already feel that the NHS is drowning in paperwork - filling in more forms and figures is not the solution to reducing patient wait times and improving outcomes. But they may change their opinion if they understand that, in the long term, good quality data will keep patients out of hospital in the first place.

The same is true for senior decision makers, who tell us that they leave handling and interpretation of data to others because it’s not within their remit. There is an imbalance between the number of data literate professionals now entering the health service, versus the level of data literacy in management and senior decision-makers. Many just don’t have the time, expertise or confidence to bring data into their processes and they may see the change as a potential threat.

However, as James alluded to in his presentation (in the slide below), teams need a diverse profile of skills to be successful. What we don’t want is to fill NHS senior leadership positions with ‘data people’ - typically white men in technical roles. But is there a role for coaching leaders to understand the value of data and how to use data more confidently in their day to day work?

Teams need diverse skills that are specific to each role. The aim is not to replace the NHS workforce with analysts but rather to improve data skill and infrastructure to make existing services easier, more transparent and reproducible.
Credit: Open Innovations

Huw Davies

Then comes the challenge of how to deliver training to ensure consistency in competency across the health service, but also to address the barrier in communication and understanding between people in operations and data roles. To understand whether that training is effective, you need a baseline understanding of competency to compare against. Recognising that there is a spectrum of data skills at all levels, a standard method of assessment is needed to collect data on the workforce themselves.

Huw shared with us some of his work, starting to identify some of the key, core competencies of analysts, data scientists and engineers within the health service, devising a unified approach to delivering training with a national competency framework. Which skills are expected and necessary for a given role and how do they measure improvement? How do you ensure that skills are consistent so you can compare between trusts and organisations?

Training approaches should be designed for a range of audiences, not just people with a technical background but also for clinicians, senior management and graduates alike. Huw shared a recent paper that identifies several educational approaches that focus on real problems of interest to these audiences. 

Andy Kemp

We also don’t want everyone who enters the analyst workforce to look the same. We want more people from all backgrounds to enter the health service with the skills and confidence to succeed and improve services. Andy shared with us how Generation, and a global network of non-profit organisations are supporting people from under-represented backgrounds into the profession.

We want to ensure that, given the growing demand for technical skills in health, a new generation of analysts does not perpetuate existing inequalities in the sector
Credit: Generation

There is a gap in data skills, not limited to the health sector, with 48% of companies recruiting for hard data skills and 46% of those struggling to fill those roles. Analytical skills are the fastest growing digital skills cluster according to the UK Government Report, however women and people from ethnic minorities are under-represented in technical roles.

Demand for data skills is high, and there is a skills shortage not limited to the health sector.
Credit: Generation

The NHS needs tens of thousands more skilled - and diverse - data professionals to fulfill its ‘ultimate goal of having a health and care system that is underpinned by high-quality and readily available data’. Those people need communities to support each other, collaborate, share knowledge and make progress in the open.

Thanks to our speakers, and to our sponsors and supporters of the Open Data Saves Lives event series. If you want to add to the conversation, get in touch with us on Twitter or drop us an email. Our next session will be on the 1st November - register for the session now and we'll see you there!