Guest Blog: Challenges and Opportunities for Health and Care Statistics

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust health and social care statistics into the headlines. Never has there been more scrutiny or spotlight on health statistics – they are widely quoted, in Number 10 briefings, in the news, across social media, on Have I Got News for you… and everyone (it seems) is an expert.  Nearly 2 years on from the first news reports of the ‘coronavirus’, the public appetite for data and statistics has continued to grow. This has created new challenges for health and care statistics producers, as well as highlighting existing areas for improvement, as set out in the recent Office for Statistics Regulation’s COVID-19 lessons learned report.  The report noted the remarkable work of statistics producers, working quickly and collaboratively to overcome new challenges.

I joined the Department of Health and Social Care early in the pandemic, first leading the Test & Trace analytical function and for the last year as the department’s Head of Profession for Statistics. I have experienced these challenges first-hand and have been impressed throughout by the professionalism and commitment of colleagues across the heath sector to produce high quality and trustworthy statistics and analysis.

One of the recommendations of the OSR report (lesson 7) calls for us to build on the statistical achievements of the last two years and ensure stronger analytical leadership and coordination of health and social care statistics. I reflected at the beginning of the pandemic that it was hard to achieve coherence, given the number of organisations in England working rapidly to publish new statistics. We have made substantial improvements as the pandemic has gone on, the COVID-19 dashboard one of many notable successes, but I want to go further, and apply this to other areas of health and social care.

To address this, I have convened a new Health Statistics Leadership Forum alongside statistical leaders in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, NHS England/Improvement, NHS Digital, NHS Business Services Authority, Office for National Statistics, and the newly formed UK Health Security Agency. The forum is chaired by the Department for Health and Social Care in its overarching role and brings together Heads of Profession for statistics and lead statisticians from across the health statistics system in England.

We will use this monthly forum to ensure collaboration across all our statistical work. And we have a broader and more ambitious aim to build a culture (that transcends the complex organisational landscape) which values analytical insights, supports innovation and ensures there is a clear, joined up narrative for health statistics in the public domain.

We have set five immediate priorities

  1. Coherence in delivery of advice and statistics
    We will work collaboratively to ensure that our statistical portfolios are aligned, and we provide complimentary statistical products – working in a joined-up way across the system
  2. Shared understanding of priorities
    Ensuring health statistics address the highest priority areas, are relevant and useful for public debate and provide clear insight to inform decision making at the highest level.
  3. Consistent approach to transparency
    We will ensure alignment of both our internal and external reporting so that the right data is quoted in statements and policy documents – clearly sourced and publicly available in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics.
  4. Shared methodologies and definitions
    We will have clear principles for coherence of methodologies and definitions, an expectation of common definitions where it makes sense to do so, and an escalation route via the forum for disagreement.
  5. Build a joined-up statistics community
    We will build a joined-up health statistics community through sharing our guidance on good practice, our approaches to induction, a shared seminar programme and annual town hall event, joint recruitment, managed moves, and secondments or loans.

Government statisticians have achieved so much as a community to provide statistics and analysis in really challenging times over the last two years, but there are lessons to learn and things we can do better.  I am confident that our Leadership Forum will ensure that we maintain this collaborative approach to delivery, and bring health statistical leaders together to make that happen.