Improving health and social care statistics: lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

Published:
7 October 2021
Last updated:
7 October 2021

In brief

Our objective is to promote statistics that serve the public good. It is vital that health and social care statistics command public confidence and enhance public understanding. This supports confidence in organisations which produce statistics, as well as the decisions based on them, and allows individuals to make informed decisions and hold their governments to account.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge public appetite for data and statistics. We have seen a remarkable response from producers to meet this demand. Producers worked quickly and collaboratively, in many cases overcoming challenges which would previously have seemed insurmountable. They demonstrated a clear commitment to transparency through their efforts to inform and engage the public. As a result, there has been unprecedented public engagement with health and social care data, for example through dashboards and other tools. There are lessons which the whole of the UK’s statistical system should learn from these achievements.

However, the pandemic has also drawn attention to existing problems and created new challenges for health and social care statistics. There have been some gaps in important information, and it has not always been clear where users can find the information they need or which data they should use. Building on the achievements of the pandemic and overcoming existing challenges will require strong leadership, a commitment to transparency and sufficient investment, for example in data sharing and linking, data infrastructures, and analytical resource.

Our review of health and social care statistics during the pandemic identified ten lessons which support these objectives:

1. Transparency is essential for building public trust in statistics and retaining public confidence in government decisions.

To demonstrate trustworthiness, statistics producers must be able to use their unique ability to act independently from the political process.

2. Senior leaders within governments can provide valuable support for statisticians.

They must promote a culture which values good use of data and independent statistical input.

3. The pandemic reinforced the need for statistics to inform society about public health and provide an understanding of how public health programmes are working.

Statistics producers should continue to develop outputs which go beyond operational data in order to support policy evaluation and a better understanding of public health.

4. The pandemic exposed gaps in available data.

To ensure that statistics best serve the public good, these gaps must now be filled. Statistics producers should be proactive in meeting user needs to minimise gaps in future.

5. Data infrastructure impacted the ability of some statistics producers to respond to the demands of the pandemic.

Flexible and joined-up data infrastructures are needed so producers can respond quickly to new data needs.

6. Flexible use of analytical resource supported the impressive work by statistics producers.

Sufficient investments in recruitment and retention of skilled statisticians are required so statistics continue to be sustainable and responsive.

7. Strong analytical collaboration resulted in valuable, high-quality, coherent statistics during the pandemic.

Taking this approach to other topics will help overcome existing and future problems.

8. Sharing and linking data can have life-saving impacts.

This must be prioritised by governments beyond the pandemic.

9. When data and statistics are clearly presented, they are valued by the public.

Statistics producers should apply the lessons they have learned about how to improve public communication to other statistics.

10. The pandemic highlighted the value of timely health and social care statistics.

However, there is always a balance between timeliness, quality and resource, and producers must be transparent about this with users.

 

If you have feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact us.

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Executive Summary

In this review, we focus on the current state of the UK’s statistical system.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested all aspects of our society and our lives within it, and the statistical system has been no exception.

Our review focuses on the five thematic areas which we have found to be central to the statistical system’s response. Areas where we would like to see the positive momentum of the past year harnessed and improvements made to ensure that statistics and data serve the public good now and in the future.

Building on the momentum of the past year: five thematic areas

Responsive and proactive

Statistical producers (producers) across the UK governments have been responsive and proactive in producing data and statistics to support policy and to provide wider information to the public which really adds value. The UK statistical system should:

      • Continue to be responsive and proactive in its delivery of statistics.
      • Horizon-scan to identify existing and future data gaps and consider how these gaps should be addressed.
      • Consider how best to use better infrastructure, processes and systems to improve the efficiency and sustainability of its processes.

 

Timely

Producers have responded impressively to the need for very timely data to ensure that decisions around responses to the pandemic are based on the most up-to-date evidence. The UK statistical system should:

      • Continue to identify ways to be timely in its delivery of data and statistics, balancing the need for timeliness with accuracy and reliability, coherence and comparability.
      • Consider users’ needs when deciding how best to address this balance and be clear with users about the limitations of specific approaches.

 

Collaborative

Collaboration and data sharing and linkage have been a key strength of both the UK statistical system and the wider analytical community over the past year. This more joined-up approach has improved our understanding of the impact of the pandemic both on public health and on wider areas such as employment and the economy. The UK statistical system should:

      • Build on the progress made in the past year and be more collaborative.
      • Share and link data in a secure way to really add value and deliver the public good. With data sharing and data linkage becoming the norm.

 

Clear and insightful

We have seen some good examples of clearly presented and insightful statistics which serve the public good. The UK statistical system should:

      • Continue to improve its communication and presentation of statistics and data, with a focus on adding insight.
      • Support statisticians to have greater freedom to engage openly about data and statistics and their limitations, both within and outside government.

 

 

Transparent and trustworthy

For statistics to serve the public good they must be trustworthy, and this includes statistics being used and published in an open and transparent way. We have seen efforts to put information in the public domain and producers voluntarily applying the Code of Practice for Statistics (‘the Code’) to their outputs. However, inevitably the increased volume of and demand for data has placed a greater burden on producers and led to selected figures being quoted publicly when the underlying data are not in the public domain. The UK statistical system should:

      • Make transparency the default across all statistics and data.
      • Promote voluntary application of the Code pillars for sources of analysis and data that are not official statistics to ensure that the pillars of Trustworthiness, Quality and Value are embedded across all statistics and data.
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