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Digging for data: how better information helps child health

Data, according to the government, is the 21st century's new raw material.

Ministers claim it can be used to hold authorities to account, to inspire innovation, and to drive improvements in public services.

Hopefully this will mean fresh BMA calls, for the better use of better data when it comes to improving the health and well-being of children, will be acted upon.

Growing Up in the UK says one of the key elements for giving all children the best start in life is ensuring child health policies are evidence-based and informed by robust data, to improve the 'match' between children’s healthcare needs and the services provided to meet those needs.

This data, according to the BMA, is not consistently available across the UK. The Association would like to see 'comprehensive childhood disease incidence and prevalence databases, with indicators of well-being, development, and risk profiles, all linked to demographic information'.

The BMA believes such a resource should, ideally, be available on a geographic basis to allow health service planning and evaluation, and provide an indication of healthcare need.


Digging deeper

It praises the progress made so far with the Child and Maternal Health Observatory – but says this resource can only ever be as good as the data available, and this remains insufficient. Similarly, joint strategic needs assessments, which should set out the health and social care blueprint for an area, based on collaboration between local authorities, public health directors, doctors and social services, are seen as a good idea in principle – but are reliant on the data that is available.

Growing Up in the UK does draw on multiple sources of data. But this multiplicity is itself one of the data issues that needs to be addressed. National data obviously allows national comparisons, for example – but it can obscure variations between regions, social classes and ethnic groups that are of interest to local commissioners.

The BMA recommends: 

  • An annual report on the health of children, similar to the Chief Medical Officer for England’s report on the state of the public health. This would monitor health trends in children so remedial action can be taken where needed and progress monitored 
  • Comprehensive, reliable, regularly collected data on child health and healthcare needs that can be used to inform health services planning and evaluation. This should build on the current outcomes frameworks to strengthen the data resources available for health services 
  • Randomised and controlled trials to evaluate which interventions in children's health work, and for whom. Ideally, these should be measured in longitudinal and randomised controlled population-based trials
  • In child protection, a use of routine data and linkage of data from health, social care, the judicial system and education is essential for understanding which professionals are coming into contact with children and patterns of this contact, which children might not have any early or preventive services, where services might be duplicated and which outcomes are linked to input from which services.

In February, the Government announced it wanted to reduce the number of excess deaths in children and start a data revolution so the NHS and local authorities can get better information to improve the health of young people.

Dame Fiona Caldicott has also recently published her recommendations about data sharing in the NHS.
It sounds as though the will to improve NHS data use is there. The challenge will be transforming those intentions into practice.