For healthcare professionals in the community, the benefits of going paperless don’t just lie in improving efficiency argues Ian Bailey, clinical lead at EMIS Health and a former district nurse. The easily-accessible data generated has enormous value too – but only if we can give staff confidence in using it.

We’ve been talking about how the NHS can become paperless for years now, and across community services that change is being realised, with technology enabling more mobile working and sharing of data to deliver better, safer patient care.

But becoming digital means much more than transferring from paper records to electronic ones. Technology provides a lot of data. And that data can be collated and analysed to help improve clinical care across patient populations.

The word ‘data’ still scares people. Healthcare professionals tell me: “I’m not a numbers person; I don’t understand data.” But health analytics isn’t about healthcare staff being able to understand the raw data or how to crunch it. It’s about working with your data team or technology provider so that data is presented in a usable way and you can make decisions on how best to organise care and use scarce resources.

At EMIS, we’ve seen how analytics has allowed dramatic reductions in mental health service waiting times. Data is power.

Addressing misconceptions and improving planning

When I worked as a district nurse there was a misconception that bank holidays were quiet times for our services – in fact, the opposite was the case. We always saw a peak in demand, while other services such as general practice and A&E saw peaks immediately following a bank holiday, once people returned to school or work. Had data been more readily available, we could have analysed the trends and planned capacity more efficiently.

Across the country, many services are being delivered in the community in the same way as they always have been. But health analytics offers us the chance to begin tailoring services to better meet the needs of the local population.

Within the geographical area that I used to cover, I knew we had patients with rare cancers who needed specialist care, particularly in the advanced stages. But all my information was anecdotal, and I did not have the data I needed to analyse trends robustly. If I had, I would have been able to develop my community team to better meet their needs.

At the very least, analytics gives clinicians a picture of what they do. Rather than telling colleagues that there is demand within a service, they can show them. At best, it can revolutionise the way services are delivered and patients are cared for.

Proving the power of data

The challenge is that until people are shown the power of data, they don’t always see the difference it can make.

There has been a culture change in terms of the technology available to community services. Teams are now armed with mobile devices and the flexibility to work out in the community, no longer constrained by having to return to the office to update records or access information.

With EMIS Mobile, we feel we’ve been able to support community services to change the way they work and adopt technology. We are now seeing more efficient and safer care. As a result, teams are now demanding more – they want extra functionality, such as the ability to refer patients to other services electronically from the mobile device. Our challenge as a technology provider is to keep pace with that demand for even more sophisticated technology.

Now is the time to use this momentum and help our community colleagues to use the data that is available to them. If we don’t start to do this, services will continue to deliver more of the same. Add to that the fact that the NHS is under increasing pressure to deliver more activity for less budget and it’s clear that we need to see the widespread adoption of health analytics in the same way that we have technology.

Getting analytics on the agenda

Every day, I speak to colleagues working in community services across the UK. Some have been using health analytics for some time. They work with their data team which provides the frontline staff with a dashboard – a visual representation of the clinical activity they’ve delivered and the targets they’ve met. But many more are yet to use the data they’re collecting in a meaningful way. Everyone agrees that it’s something they need to do, but they just don’t have the time, or the data isn’t easily available.

I’d encourage everyone to put health analytics high on their agenda. As clinical staff, the insight it’s possible to provide to your business intelligence and analytics teams will ensure they interpret the data in a way that is useful and useable. Tell them what your teams need so that you can make better decisions about your services. Get involved in user groups and customer engagement groups. Engage with your technology supplier.

The data that your service produces is probably already being analysed at some level, so let’s influence how that data is being used.

In the short term, using data for health analytics can break the cycle of working harder and doing more of the same. Using data to its full potential allows services to better analyse demand and need. In the longer term, we have the potential to positively influence care across whole populations – improving everyone’s quality of life through better healthcare.

Ian Bailey is clinical lead at EMIS Health and a former chief clinical informatics officer at a community trust. He began his career in district nursing.