How the NHS Maintains the Momentum towards Digitalisation
Written by Amanda Baldwin
Chief Data and Analytics Officer
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation went from being important to being essential to business survival across every industry. Data is the foundation of digital transformation, and a Gartner survey found that 72% of data and analytics leaders oversee these initiatives. As years have passed, there has never been more of a need for businesses to be at the forefront of digitalisation. How can executives drive support and enthusiasm for the endless digitalisation journey?
Ming Tang, Chief Data and Analytics Officer (Interim) for NHS England, is no stranger to this situation. Data became the prime weapon in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, and to bolster the effort, NHS England named Ming as their first CDAO to lead the charge.
We were already creating a lot of digital products, but the pandemic really drew together - the “secret sauce” - what we had to do faster and how we could work differently. How important is flexibility? How do we bring together teams with very different views?"
Ming noted that as COVID-19 efforts waned, it remained important to engage leaders across the NHS on the benefits of digital transformation. According to Evanta’s annual Leadership Perspective Survey, CDOs from around the world are also struggling with this and have listed data-driven culture as both a top priority and challenge for this year.
Ming shares how her team is using learnings from the pandemic to deepen the momentum towards digitalisation in this new era of business.
“Don’t Do Data and Analytics for Data and Analytics Sake”
This is Ming’s mantra. In the past, Ming’s team created data tools with the hope that they would be adopted, but they have since shifted their resources to only creating tools that directly solve a business problem or support someone in the business to do their job more effectively. She said, “the tooling has to be used and be useful.”
As part of COVID-19, we had to change the way that we worked - coalescing around the data products. Working less in silos, it was a call to arms to bring all of our teams together, and we had to staff according to the business need."
Ming credits her team’s ability to respond quickly to collaboration efforts between data and business functions during COVID-19. Supported by the right data tools, NHS leaders could make data-driven decisions around vaccination efforts including where to open vaccination sites, how to target demographics with low vaccination rates, and more.
Having this closed loop process improved the effectiveness of the programme, and NHS leaders saw the value of data and the benefit of continuing to operate in this way.
Utilising Machine Learning to Forecast Better Healthcare
Ming discussed how the team pivoted from the typical healthcare model of being responsive to being predictive in order to improve the efficiency of their health systems and patient care.
During the pandemic, adopting machine learning (ML) to predict and manage hospital capacity was a gamechanger. By forecasting needs three weeks in advance, they were able to give hospitals foresight to discharge patients and free up beds before another surge - saving many lives.
Ming expressed that they are expanding these capabilities and using digital channels to see how people are engaging with the NHS so they can predict where they can align services and how to target patients better. For example, in primary care they are predicting demand for alternate types of care including telephone and video consultations to better serve the population. In A&E (Accident & Emergency) they are predicting the influx of specific patient diagnoses so they can build discharge models that ensure patient safety and better utilization of the hospitals.
The end goal is how do I have a digital twin of the NHS so we can optimise the best health outcomes for the amount of money that we have.”
Ming isn’t stopping here. She shared that she is striving to create a digital twin of the NHS, using AI and ML to simulate flows and activities. Forecasting on a grander scale to support leaders across the NHS to deliver better healthcare.
Doing More with Less Data Resources
Like many businesses, the NHS needed additional funding for data resources during the pandemic, and now they have to change the way the NHS works to be more successful with the resources they have.
How do we do things differently and how do we continue on this “change journey” so that we can be the best we can be all the time? We’re going to have some hard yards. It’s not easy."
Flexibility is key, and Ming’s team is creating data products by iterative design to meet demand. Ming says, “They [data products] are not pretty. They don’t need to be pretty. It just has to help someone do their job.” Their data platform is all about configuration and using plug-and-play modules to easily flex with the business and limit the number of tools they need to build from scratch. Ming also explained how they follow an Agile methodology, working in sprints to ensure users have the tools they need in a timely manner.
In the future, Ming plans to introduce a self-service data marketplace where there is a central data set for users to configure and share their own data applications. She explained how it can be incredibly difficult to mobilise the entire coalition of health systems in the NHS to work in a consistent manner, but by providing tools which can truly solve their business challenges, they are more likely to see adoption.
Sustaining Public Trust
When it comes to public perspective on the NHS’ digitalisation efforts, Ming explains, “Public trust is very fragile.”
The public typically see the NHS from a very localised perspective with an immense amount of loyalty and support, but they have mixed understandings and opinions of data collection practices.
Because we’ve managed some of the national programs that have gone to market quite badly, we need to almost reset the social contract with the public. Make it more visible, more transparent."
It can be difficult for the public to understand the reason behind data collection efforts, but as systems within the NHS start to implement forecasting and data-driven decisions, Ming is hoping to provide more tangible examples on how this is benefiting services. An example she gave is using the NHS app to detail how collecting information on ethnicity can help them identify and address inequalities in waiting lists for services.
Continuing the Digitalisation Journey
Ming’s experience as a CDAO during the pandemic has propelled the NHS’ digitalisation efforts for today and beyond. Leaders in the NHS have taken note, and Ming mentioned that for the first time the National Executives in the NHS are focusing on data and sharing how it is going to make their lives different. This support is a major step forward in changing mindsets and driving adoption across the NHS.
To learn more best practices about digitalisation and connect with qualified C-level peers on this topic, join your local Evanta CDO community here.
Special thanks to Ming Tang and NHS England.
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