In 2003, when I was an undergraduate student, I spent a summer working for a little known data company then based in the City of London. Today Dr Foster is well-known, but back then more people seemed to have heard of the foolish doctor in the famous nursery rhyme who went to Gloucester and stepped in a puddle, as opposed to the NHS partner organisation that collates and analyses healthcare data.
I was often met with outright hostility when I told people what I was doing for my summer job: collating various death rates from PCTs across Britain—those of stroke and heart attack patients, those admitted with a broken hip, and those who entered hospital for low-risk procedures. But when will it end, they would frequently ask. How much more data will they need for their guide to be meaningful? I wish I knew then what I know now and so could have replied, quite simply: more, much more.
After yesterday’s headlines in the Observer and Sunday Telegraph concerning 12 NHS hospital trusts which are “significantly underperforming” in relation to safety standards, it’s clear how vital data sharing is in deciding where public services need to be improved and, moreover, how pernicious NHS targets are when based exclusively on financial goals, rather than actual clinical experience.
Writing in Prospect earlier this year, Tim Kelsey, chair and one of the founders of Dr Foster, presented a highly convincing argument for more extensive data collection. In his piece, “Long live the database state” he wrote that “if public services don’t improve productivity they will soon be unaffordable…such data can help the NHS stop those at risk of chronic illnesses actually contracting them [and] such early intervention should reduce the need for expensive hospital services later on.”
He rightly highlighted, however, that the government is still too restrictive about what information—anonymised personal data, that is—it allows to be compiled and used. “We still don’t know how good our doctors are…every time we interact with public service we leave a record. Those records should be the lifeblood our public services…but in practice such data remains unused. Overcoming this problem means taking on the powerful civil liberties lobby, which is against data sharing of any kind.”
And so, even after yesterday’s revelations,…