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

Published:
7 October 2021
Last updated:
7 October 2021

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the vital role that data and statistics play in our society. They have been crucial for making operational decisions to manage the demands on health and care services, and essential for understanding implications for public health. There has been a huge public appetite for data and statistics, to support individuals to reach informed decisions and hold their governments to account.

It is clear that we will be living with COVID-19 for some time to come – this will require health and social care services to continue to manage and respond to increased pressures, and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on public health will need to be understood. It is also the case that many of the challenges society faced before the pandemic remain today – improving social care systems, tackling inequalities in health outcomes, and understanding mental health and wellbeing.

For all these reasons it is crucial that statistics about health and social care are trustworthy, of high quality and valuable. While society continues to face challenges from the pandemic, it is important to learn lessons from the experiences so far – particularly at a time when governments are starting to set out their plans for coming out of the pandemic. To support this learning, we carried out a review of health and social care statistics during the pandemic. To inform our review we spoke to statistics producers (referred to as ‘producers’ from now on) in governments and public health bodies across the UK. We also spoke to data providers and users of health and social care data. Building on our State of the UK Statistical System report published in July 2021, this review explores the lessons learned for health and social care statistics in more detail. Our aim in this review is to complement recent work by others such as the Royal Statistical Society, Full Fact, the Health Foundation, and the National Audit Office.

Summary

Our objective is to promote statistics that serve the public good. We want to see health and social care statistics which command public confidence and enhance public understanding. The pandemic has highlighted the need for statistics on public health, social care, and government interventions, as well as the importance of a statistical system which is responsive to emerging issues. It has also demonstrated the impact that well-communicated statistics can have on society, informing both governments and citizens.

The efforts of those involved in producing health and social care statistics in response to the pandemic have been remarkable. Producers worked quickly and collaboratively, in many cases overcoming challenges which would previously have seemed insurmountable. They provided governments with daily reporting, at pace and under considerable pressures, and demonstrated a clear commitment to providing the public with valuable information. As a result, there has been unprecedented public engagement with health and social care data. There are positive lessons for the whole of the UK’s statistical system in the speed, flexibility and collaborative approach taken, including increases in data and resource sharing between organisations. There are also positive lessons to be learned in the communication of statistics and data, for example through the publication of clear and visually engaging outputs which have attracted, at their peak, millions of daily views.

However, the pandemic has also drawn attention to existing problems, and created new challenges, for health and social care data. These have resulted in gaps in, and delays to, important information. 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 and collaboration to protect the independent role of government statisticians and create a coherent picture for users
  • A commitment to transparency to ensure that statistics and data quoted publicly are published in an accessible form
  • Governments to commit sufficient investment, for example in data sharing and linking, data infrastructures, and analytical resource

Our review identified ten lessons which support these objectives. These are grouped under five themes which we consider central to a strong statistical system: transparent and trustworthy; responsive and proactive; collaborative; clear and insightful; and timely.

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