Health committee calls for rethink of NHS data sharing practices

Written by Rebecca Hill on 1 September 2016 in News
News

MPs have slammed poor data-sharing practices within the UK’s healthcare systems and urged the Department of Health to review NHS Digital’s role in linking health and social care data.

MPs have identified major problems with local authorities' access to health data - Photo credit: Flickr, Medill DC

In its report Public Health Post-2013 - when major reforms saw much of the responsibility transferred from the NHS to local authorities - the House of Commons Health Committee said that it had identified numerous problems to do with healthcare professionals’ access necessary data. 

“Difficulties in public health teams accessing data to enable them to work effectively has emerged as a recurring theme in this inquiry,” the committee wrote in an annex dedicated to issues of healthcare data sharing.

Although the committee acknowledged that Public Health England is working to resolve these issues, it set out a number of recommendations for the government to tackle the problem.


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One of these recommendations focuses on the UK’s national health and social care data provider and handler, NHS Digital – formerly the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

NHS Digital is responsible for linking health and social care data and providing local government with access to data. However, evidence given to the committee by PHE chief knowledge officer John Newton said that NHS Digital “is not yet set up to be able to deliver those services”.

The committee stated that the policy that data linkage can only happen centrally – at NHS Digital – is also causing problems for local area public health teams who need to carry out ad hoc studies.

It said that DH should review the barriers that the existing data linkage policy creates.

The committee added that, until data is easily available to local authorities, there should be a co-ordinated national support programme to ensure that local authorities “at least understand what data they are able to access, and how they can do so”.

According to the committee, PHE said that there are two broad types of data that public health specialists needed to access but couldn’t. These are population healthcare data and operational data about the services they are commissioning.

The report’s annex looks in more detail at what data healthcare professionals have trouble accessing; it comprises a list of hard-to-access data, why it is needed, who holds it and why access is a problem.

This includes anonymised cancer survival data, anonymised hospital activity data, anonymised mental health services data, local level cancer statistics and mortality rates.

The reasons given about why access is currently problematic range from a lack of agreements on direct access to information or a lack of data available at a local level, to concerns about information governance or confidentiality.

The committee said that it had already asked PHE and NHS Digital to provide a response on each of the 21 data types, and that it would be following this up in six months’ time.

The committee’s report comes just a month after the government axed its controversial care.data patient data sharing scheme, which was plagued by criticism, including that it was poorly communicated to the public and did not offer suitable information on how to opt-out.

At the same time, the government launched a consultation on ten proposals to strengthen security around health and care information, set out by the national data guardian Fiona Caldicott as part of her review into healthcare data.

It is expected that the results of this consultation will frame the government’s next attempts at creating a single database of patient data. Announcing the closure of care.data, the then-life sciences minister George Freeman said that the government was “absolutely committed to realising the benefits of sharing information”.

The consultation closes on 7 September. 

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