As awful and tragic as this pandemic has been, COVID has helped us realize the power of what we can do as a data organization in a different way. How? By heightening the focus on important programs in the National Health Service (NHS)  and accelerating progress that might have taken a decade otherwise.

Strong ‘Data Medicine’ 

Integrated care systems around the world struggle to share data due to a combination of factors: data territorialism, legacy systems and the failure to think beyond episodic care. As a result, you end up with data siloes and limited insights. When COVID struck, we realized that we had an opportunity to unify efforts with our data partners in ways we never had before. Clearly we didn’t want people creating their own pandemic data infrastructure, so we moved quickly to unify our efforts. We were able to create a National COVID Data Store, which houses upwards of 4,000 data sets in one centralized location and is hosted by NHS. This would never have happened had COVID not appeared (sadly), because everyone had a tendency to be protectionist about their own territory and technology. Moving our data and analytics efforts into the 21st century will require much heart, conviction and a willingness to believe we can do better.

Deepening Data's Impact

We have at pace been engaging with patient and citizen groups as well as professional organisations to ameliorate data governance concerns and ensure what we are doing improves health and care services. Primary care data is key; it has not always been easy to share practice data nationally, which limits our knowledge of what the front end of our healthcare system is doing beyond performance and assurance, and population health management becomes nearly impossible. The potential change in legislation will mean that integrated care becomes a reality. 

Three Reasons for Optimism

As we move through 2021, I feel optimistic for three reasons

  1. We can use the momentum COVID has provided to design our infrastructure so that we can start capturing data in new ways. For instance, patients today capture a lot of data on their devices (Fitbit, Apple Watch), and that data should become part of their personal health record. 
  2. As COVID begins to recede, many healthcare stakeholder groups seem reluctant to go back to their silo-based ways of working. Yes, there will always be the 20 percent of users who raise dubious arguments such as, “Well, our area’s different and special,” but I can live with that if we get to 80 percent data and analytics collaboration. That’s far better than where we were five years ago.
  3. We’re seeing surprisingly positive input from our own staff about the technologies that COVID has forced them to use. In the monthly health and wellbeing survey we run with our team we have a 1 to 10 scale. Pre-COVID, when we asked people whether the technology they used was working for them and whether they were able to use data to its maximum efficiency, we'd score at about 3 to 4 out of 10. But during the COVID period those numbers have steadily been going up. Today we're probably at about 6 to 7 out of 10 for those questions. 

In short, even though we know we are on a three- to five-year journey with our data culture, one we absolutely need to take, we know that we're doing something right.

The views here represent those of the author and are not necessarily those of NHS England and NHS Improvement.


Sukhmeet Panesar (Suki) trained as a doctor in emergency medicine and public health and is skilled management consultancy, health policy and academia. At EY and Accenture, his work has focused on the national program for designing new care models. He has also been the chief clinical safety officer for deploying national solutions such as NHS Mail. In his current role, he leads digital transformation, strategy and development across 270+ individuals aggregated together from NHS England and NHS Improvement into one of the largest Data, Analysis and Intelligence Service (DAIS) teams, whose purpose is to help integrated care systems deliver population health management initiatives.