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

Published:
7 October 2021
Last updated:
7 October 2021

Clear and insightful

Lesson 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.

 

The pandemic raised the public profile of data, statistics, and statisticians. Producers felt valued and relevant, helping them to deliver under immense pressure. The level of public interest in data and statistics about the pandemic is likely to be an extreme example. Nevertheless, it is good that producers plan to apply lessons learned about how to improve public communication to other statistics. These lessons include the success of dashboards to meet varied user needs and the benefits of multidisciplinary teams – for example, involving subject experts, statisticians, and data visualisers. Having data, or links to data, in one place was also beneficial for users, for example in Scotland. While it is not essential to have all data on a topic accessible in one place, it is important to sign-post users to related information. We have seen ONS provide this broad picture well in its coronavirus roundups. Given the many different producers in England, part of a coordination role which we have recommended in lesson 7 above should consider how best to help users find all the data they need.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of statisticians meeting the needs of users from the media and supporting them as intermediaries with the public. Technical briefings between statisticians and the media in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland resulted in improved reporting – we highlighted the briefings in Northern Ireland in our State of the UK Statistical System report. At Public Health Scotland, support from the communications team was particularly important in building good relationships between the organisation and journalists. It has been positive to see statisticians directly engage more with the media – in these ways, and through more-regular appearances on radio and television. We would like to see senior leaders give statisticians across all organisations the opportunity to do this more.

Statistics and data should be presented clearly and explained meaningfully to users. A challenge in communicating data and statistics about COVID-19 was that producers were having to continually learn what information was needed and how to best measure it. There was often no established method and sometimes agreeing definitions between producers and countries was challenging. Meeting varied user needs sometimes resulted in different published measures, for example on COVID-19 deaths or vaccination denominators. While, in these cases, each measure had value to meet a different purpose, this was not always clear to users. In future, producers should communicate clearly when users should use different measures, what the strengths and limitations of these are, and why differences exist.

Recommendation

  • Producers should reflect on the lessons learned about the communication of statistics during the pandemic and apply these to their other work – for example, how to best communicate with the public and the media. Producers should share these lessons with each other and the wider statistical system.
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