Southend’s health and social care information sharing issues, and a trip to the Data Protection conference

We have been busy in the last couple of weeks, talking to people who are working on information sharing issues in local areas.  This time last week, we joined a workshop for Integrated Care and Support pioneers, the 14 areas that are exploring new and innovative ways to deliver joined up health and social care.  Southend described a barrier to information sharing which was preventing partners bringing together data from health and social care organisations for the purposes of planning and designing the new approach, so a team of national experts was dispatched to investigate and feedback at last week’s workshop.  Then on Monday of this week, we were invited to attend the annual Data Protection Conference of the Information Commissioner’s Office, where over 750 DP professionals were gathered to learn about new developments from the ICO and elsewhere.  At both of these events, it was clear that there is a lot of interest in information sharing issues, and in the work of the new Centre of Excellence – unsurprising, really, when you think about the pressures on the public sector at present.  The needs of citizens are changing (for example, with an ageing population); citizens want their public services to be better tailored to those needs (we’re becoming used to Amazon offering us other books we might be interested in!); and the climate of austerity seems set to continue.

The case in Southend was a fascinating one, and one that surely must be replicated elsewhere in the country.  The Health and Social Care Act 2012 created a swathe of new structures to govern and deliver healthcare, with some unforeseen consequences for the flows of information underpinning the system.  When commissioners seek to understand the needs of their local area, there is often a need to bring together datasets from a range of sources – such as the local GPs, the local council, perhaps providers of social care.  Matching those datasets can be a real challenge, and it may rely on using personal information to make that happen – postcode, say, or the name of an individual – before it can be anonymised for analysis.  Under previous legislation, those responsible for commissioning health services were able to access personal information, in order to make that matching possible; but new legislation prevents this.  Commissioners were therefore left with a limited understanding of what services are required locally, to the obvious detriment of local residents.

The expert panel who worked with Southend have been able to demonstrate that the barrier to information sharing was (on this occasion) a real legislative issue, and one which requires – and is receiving – urgent attention.  However, within their report, a number of other barriers were also picked up which would be very familiar to regular readers: clarifying the precise aim of the information sharing, in order to specify who needs what and when? Check!  Addressing this kind of barrier doesn’t just involve invoking the enormous amount of information governance expertise which already exists in health and social care – it means bringing those specialists together with commissioners, service designers and those delivering the service, to design the right process.  This is exactly the kind of work that the Centre of Excellence will specialise in; and we’ll be capturing what we learn as case studies and evidence, to share here on the website.

It is this way of working that created such interest at the Data Protection Conference (and not just the bowls of sweeties adorning our stand).  The conference attendees told us that they are often in a reactive position – a request for information arrives, and they need to respond.  But the way we work in the public sector is changing, and they often need to share their expertise and get involved at a more strategic level.  The IISaM project gave us great insight into the issues that are emerging in the local areas who are radically reforming the way they do things, and that stands us in good stead for the introduction of the new Centre of Excellence.  So we will be working over the coming months to consider how the Centre, and all of the other professions who need to involved in information sharing, can support leaders and practitioners to make information sharing everybody’s job, rather than nobody’s job.