Dr Tom Foley, Senior Clinical Lead for Data at NHS Digital, writes about how access to data through the Data Access Request Service can help improve NHS services.

It’s easy to imagine how nurses and doctors can save lives. It isn’t always so obvious how Data Saves Lives. In this post I’ll explain some of the work that NHS Digital and our partners do to make sure NHS Data is used to improve care for patients.

What we do

At NHS Digital, we collect, process and publish data from across the health and social care system in England. On our website we publish over 265 official publications each year and they are downloaded over 837,000 times.

Our top priority is to keep data safe and to respect people’s preferences about how their data is used. We also want to ensure that the data is used by researchers and policy makers to improve the way other patients are treated. Ultimately, we want to enable a Learning Health System where patient data is used to deliver continuous improvements to health and care.

What difference does data make?

NHS Digital and its predecessors have been managing health data for over 30 years. Through our Data Access Request Service (DARS) we are able to provide clinicians, researchers, commissioners and certain commercial organisations with access to data where it will help to improve NHS services.

The DARS team makes sure that all data access complies with Information Governance requirements, so that patients can be reassured that their data is used responsibly.

Every time we grant access to data, we publish details of what it is used for. We recently asked Newcastle University researcher, Dr Mabel Lie, to analyse a cross section of these projects. Dr Lie found that there were 22 distinct types of beneficial impacts that use of data held by NHS Digital had contributed to. These benefits spanned from helping to improve health and care for patients, to using data to improve policy and planning.

The report contains many real examples of improvements that resulted from studies using data held by NHS Digital, including:

  • Bristol City Council identified trends in mortality and life expectancy, which meant they could target inequality in their area.
  • The National Joint Registry identified a particular type of hip replacement that had higher than expected complications, which was then withdrawn from use.
  • The University of York created dashboards that better informed the public about health inequalities.
  • University College London discovered how to better treat diabetes in British South Asian and African Caribbean patients.
  • The Care Quality Commission monitored healthcare providers and used the data to inform its hospital inspections.
  • The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists assessed the performance of maternity units.
  • Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Foundation Trust evaluated initiatives aimed at keeping patients out of hospital.
  • In South Tees, Wilmington Healthcare worked with Parkinson’s UK, using data to help make the case for ongoing service investment and development in services.
  • Several organisations have used the data to avoid collecting additional data locally, or to check the quality of local data, and The Nuffield Trust built tools that allowed local organisations to monitor key outcome measures more easily.

These are just a selection of the examples described in the report, but they illustrate the breadth of impacts that data can have, as well as the range of topics that it covers and the variety of organisations that apply for access. We hope that it will give other organisations ideas about how they could use this data to improve things for patients.

What’s next?

We think that we can do even better. We want to get higher quality, richer data to researchers and clinicians faster, while maintaining the trust that patients have, both in us and the NHS more generally. We will do this by rolling out a new platform for managing the data we hold and by working more closely with partners to meet their needs. This means we will be able to contribute to even more direct improvements to help the doctors, nurses and patients, making health and care better for everyone.