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Sharing community intelligence is vital to moving the health service forward

With the Government and NHS leaders vowing to make the most of advances made in the use of technology by the NHS during COVID-19 and to improve collaboration between healthcare organisations across the nation, now is the time for community intelligence to be mandated and standardised across the UK.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of understanding and tracking local health needs, from identifying vulnerable cohorts of the population to monitoring the availability of hospital beds and care homes. Good community intelligence is critical for directing resources where they’re needed most. From developing personalised care for patients with complex conditions using multiple pathways to identifying at-risk patients who need support or are likely to use resources in the future.

Community health teams play a vital role in collecting this intelligence, but the scope and scale of community health services means that a wide range of organisations must be involved including the NHS, local government, charities, and private sector companies. The information collected often varies widely from area to area as it is not mandatory to collect data, and when it does exist it is rarely accessible across services.

Before the pandemic, the CHKS Advisory Board published a report on the role of community intelligence in improving integration between health and social care systems. The report contained recommendations from senior health professionals to ensure improvement in the quality and sharing of community intelligence, including greater cross-boundary working, agreement on standardised metrics, and bringing skilled analysts on board to draw value from data.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that cross-boundary working and sharing of community intelligence is possible and extremely valuable to public health. Previous concerns over organisational boundary and data confidentiality challenges were quickly overcome to allow organisations to share and interpret data together.

For example, sharing data around occupancy levels between acute and community care facilities allowed for patients to be discharged where possible, creating more vital hospital capacity for patients with COVID-19. Data from across services has also been used in learning and understanding more about the virus, how it spreads, and its consequences, which have been integral in treating patients and gaining control of the infection rate.

Continuing this approach as the pandemic rumbles on is now key, particularly when it comes to predicting likely demand in the coming months and years. Community data can be turned into actionable insights that will help organisations plan future resource use effectively, ensuring they have the capacity available to deliver timely care to those who need it.

For the successful and continual use of community data, the NHS and local government must reach an agreement on metrics and how to share community intelligence across organisations locally and nationally. The full impact of Integrated Care Partnerships remains to be seen but no doubt they will be instrumental in developing and furthering this kind of collaboration between providers, and in driving consistent information sharing to aid their ambition in improving the health and wellbeing of communities. The definition of common indicators are core across the system to allow for quality data collection and benchmarking. More joined-up care could also be facilitated by giving patients greater ownership over their data and enabling them to share this with multiple providers across the care pathway, leading to more personalised care.

Whilst the pandemic has accelerated the cultural shift needed to allow more seamless data flow across health organisations and for them to work in a more integrated way, Quality community intelligence, and the effective sharing of this, now needs to be capitalised on to build a more sustainable health service.

I am very proud that over the last 27 years our team of NHS data experts, clinicians and quality managers have worked with more than 400 healthcare organisations around the world to improve population health. More than that though, I am encouraged and optimistic that in Healthcare the next 27 years will see real evolution of access and delivery of better healthcare for all.  As a sector, working together, using data we have today, and the technologies already available, we have everything we need to get to better.

Stuart Bailey, Product Director at Capita Healthcare Decisions.