Like many NHS leaders I have struggled to find robust information in a usable format that I could use to influence and monitor the quality of services we provide for patients.

Monitoring NHS Services

All too often data conflicts, inconsistencies and manual entry errors diminish confidence in service related data to such a point that I couldn't rely on the available information to gauge the quality of the services I was providing.

That makes identifying areas for improvement, and understanding how to make improvements, very challenging. Often more time was being spent debating the quality of the available information than actually delivering change to patient services.

What I needed was something irrefutable, something which would let us focus our our energies on improving services, rather than assembling and then checking the validity of service information.

As I fought to find clarity, I explored data warehouses, connected with NHS leaders networks, and tried every commercial benchmarking product I could find. All those options had fundamental flaws which meant that the information was never considered valid or reliable enough to really challenge and influence change. The main reason for this is that everyone records data differently, making comparison between services and organisations a hopeless pursuit.

Public Data Sets

Before I gave up all hope I started playing with NHS data in the public domain. Like many leaders I had largely ignored the public data because the information was "out of date". Why would anyone want to spend time looking at information relating to performance from over a month ago?

The answer, as I discovered, is that public data sets are subject to a strict methodology and validation process, which means you are comparing "apples with apples"! With this data, I could without dispute see how my services were performing compared to those in other areas of the country.

On the rare occasion where someone would seek to explain poor performance with: "that doesn't apply to us, we record things differently", the fact that the information is in the public domain was all the motivation needed to prompt change.

The Data Grind

Unfortunately public data sets are not easy to use. Manually refining them into influential information every month proved labour intensive. And just when I almost had everything under control, the data formats would change. But the power of this information was such a positive agent for change that I was happy to spend the hours required every week to provide my team and colleagues with the tools and information they need to make a difference.

But the processing was starting to get out of hand. I was spending so much time manually turning this data into information that at times it was taking up the majority of my working week (my daily grind). And I was still barely scratching the surface of what was out there to use.

It was at this point I turned to the commercial sector.

I asked every NHS analysis provider I knew of if they could automate the processing of the public data sets. I was willing to use quite a bit of budget to have this power harnessed. Most said: "no, the formats are too difficult to integrate". A few said that they would give it a go, but gave up when they discovered how complicated the data sets actually are.

Public View

I was on a fantastic course run by the Kings Fund called the "Top Managers' Programme". This encouraged us to "think differently", "lean in to" and "explore the things that are a bit uncomfortable". Although somewhat reluctant, that course pushed me to make the decision to roll up my sleeves and try to make my vision of a simple to use tool with all public information become a reality.