Opening up NHS data across Scotland

NHS National Services Scotland’s data chiefs tell Gill Hitchcock about a mobile-friendly platform to give clinicians, policymakers, and patients up-to-date access to healthcare information


If you’re a major source of national information, but your website is a decade old and your data is available in formats users think is old hat, it’s time to modernise. Faced with this challenge, leaders of NHS National Services Scotland’s information services division (ISD) say they are “pushing boundaries” in a project to make NHS data easily accessible to a wide range of users, on a mobile-friendly platform and bang up-to-date. 

Scott Heald, associate director of ISD, the information arm of NHS Scotland’s healthcare support and advice body, says Scottish healthcare data is among the richest in the world: “Few other countries have information which combines high-quality data, consistency, national coverage and the ability to link data to allow patient-based analysis and follow up. We have health data going back, in some cases, 40 or 50 years.”

But ISD had previously adopted what Heald describes as a “one-size fits all” approach to publishing this data, typically in standard PDFs or on Excel spreadsheets and with a time lag. This meant data could be both difficult to access and out-of-date. 

“Depending on which sector people work in, or where they live, they are interested in different splits of the data,” says Maighread Simpson, ISD’s principal information analyst.

“So, as this new work evolves we are looking to meet those differing needs and splitting data by service areas, geographies, and demographics, such as age, gender or deprivation.”

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An important aspect of the data ISD publishes is that people use it to plan NHS services, so timeliness is crucial. “One of the benefits we are trying to produce is to make the data available as quickly as possible, so that people have access when it is most valuable to them,” says Heald.

Key to this project is an iterative, agile approach. This started with a three-month “discovery phase” to understand the needs of users. These people came from health boards, including clinical staff and policy makers, the Scottish parliament and government departments, charities from across the UK involved in Scotland’s health and social care, and members of the public who engaged via focus groups and interviews.

“We have had some social-media campaigns too,” Simpson says. “Twitter proved very effective in generating new interest and was really positive. There was a bit of a ripple effect.” 

The feedback so far has informed what Simpson describes as a “product backlog”, a long list of features that people wanted ISD to develop, but she adds: “We are saying to people that there is no end stage in engaging with us. As the work progresses, and more people hear about it, we are open to engaging with new groups of people to identify what their needs are. Because of the iterative nature of this, we are continually looking for ways to improve.”

Telling stories
ISD web developers collaborated with data scientists, including data wranglers who focused on the back end where the data is extracted, coded and prepared for analysis. Next came data visualisers to improve the look and presentation of data, which users said was a high priority.

In late 2017, ISD launched a prototype of its new platform. Its initial focus is on areas of high interest: data about activities in acute hospitals and the availability of NHS beds. Data about mental health and women’s and children’s health are likely to be published this year.

“The one area we are working on for the future is written narratives, so that we can move to a ‘storytelling’ approach,” Simpson says. “Rather than being descriptive about the data, we want to explain why things are happening and what that means to society, then communicating that in a way that people understand and find engaging to read.”

The entire project is being worked on in-house by ISD staff. Heald and Simpson agree that a blending of skills is helping to drive the project forward. 

“What we are finding is that we have got lots of graduates with digital skills they are picking up at university, which are very different from the skills I learned as a statistician more than 20 years ago,” Heald says. 

“The one area we are working on for the future is written narratives, so that we can move to a ‘storytelling’ approach. Rather than being descriptive about the data, we want to explain why things are happening”
Maighread Simpson, NHS National Services Scotland

“So, their way of thinking about how to use technology for presentation is very different to the old way of doing things, and we are using those skills to help drive change.”

The pair say ISD started the project with an open mind and the outcomes so far followed many months of consultation and exploration of potential technologies. But they haven’t stopped: they want input from interested organisations and individuals, not just in Scotland, but from across the UK. 

“I am keen to keep that open mind,” Simpson says. “I don’t want to get to a place where we’re constrained by our ideas of how this should evolve.” 

“You know the analogy that people use about the compass and the map. You have a compass and a map, and you know what direction you are heading but you’re not quite sure where you will end up. That’s a bit like the position we are in at the moment. And, of course, if you strive to keep improving, there never is an end point.”

Sam Trendall

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