Giving structure and support to uplift the analytical workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the value and previously untapped potential of data analysts across the system. NHSX, working with partners including the Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts (AphA), is committed to providing the structure and leadership needed to attract, grow and retain analytical talent in health and care. Rony Arafin, Chief Operating Officer (AphA) and Sarah Culkin, Head of Analytics and Data Science (NHSX) set out findings from a crucial piece of discovery work that will guide our next steps.

Many argue the NHS could do more to optimise its use of data, claiming there aren’t enough staff with the right analytical skills to make sense of what's being collected. We know that analysts are often isolated within teams and don’t always have access to the right tools, community support or resources to help them develop their skills, capabilities and learning. Read our previous blog post on building and up skilling the NHS analytics community.

It was clear from the very early stages of the pandemic that in order to respond effectively to COVID-19, the data and analytics community needed to find new ways of sharing knowledge and avoid duplicating effort across the system. And so our online community, which has recently been rebranded as “AnalystX”, was born. Over 15,000 local, regional and national users, from a wide variety of roles including data scientists, analysts, clinicians and commissioners have come together on this platform as part of a social movement for good.

But how else do we drive up the quality and application of analytics, as well as the job satisfaction and development opportunities for analysts who want to work in a fast paced and dynamic health and care system?

Competency frameworks can provide a united and structured approach to supporting talent development and consistency of practice. They also provide employers with a way of ensuring their analytical workforce is fit for purpose and ready to respond to the evolving challenges within health and care.

Analysts can become accredited with the Federation of Informatics Professionals (FEDIP) through AphA using an externally validated peer to peer review process which helps them to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and competencies. But beyond this, rather than one, there are many different competency frameworks for analysts to consider when looking to validate their level of skill or competence or make the case for career progression.

That is why NHSX commissioned AphA to scope out what a first nationally endorsed set of competency frameworks could and should look like. This discovery work is designed to be the start of a workforce transformation which could act as a blueprint for others.

AphA’s approach included a thorough literature search and desktop review, semi-structured interviews with selected analytical leaders and an online survey of the analytical community.

The desktop review found a total of 28 competency frameworks. While these have the potential to contribute to a framework which encompasses all analytical roles within the NHS, there is no uniformly recognised competency framework for healthcare analysts at present.

Interviews and our survey highlighted that awareness and use of these current competency frameworks is very low. However there was a very clear appreciation of the potential value and importance that competency frameworks could play if effectively designed and, crucially, well implemented. It was felt that it would help define the health and care analyst profession and potentially encourage more young people to consider healthcare analysis as a career choice. Another key benefit identified was the potential value of competency frameworks in supporting the transfer of roles, both within health and care and for those joining from another application area.

There were several challenges identified, not least that the wide diversity of organisational needs, analytical roles, and skill levels and requirements across the health and care sector is a major challenge in developing a unified approach to assessment. And it was clear that competencies would need to be linked to easily accessible and clearly laid out training opportunities to support career progression.

Finally, there was a clear preference for the oversight, maintenance and management of a national framework to be conducted by an independent professional body.

You can read the full report, but key recommendations are that:

  • a multi-agency steering group should be established to oversee the transition of health and care analytics from its current state to acceptance as a professional discipline
  • the current role of Chief Data and Analytics Officer at NHSE/I should be designated as Head of Profession for Analytics to provide focus and set direction of travel for analytical workforce across the NHS
  • further work should be commissioned to establish a standardised framework for uniform adoption across the health and care system, drawing on the existing materials identified during the discovery work
  • any such framework should be rounded and include the range of ‘softer’ skills which are often disregarded - there should be a clear alignment with training provision
  • the development of the framework should be undertaken in collaboration with a range of organisations from across the country, acting as pilot sites to test usage and uptake
  • in parallel with any work to produce a standardised competency framework, a national communications strategy should be worked up to prepare for roll-out

NHSX welcomes this report and thanks AphA for this excellent piece of work which provides the foundations upon which we will deliver our "Analytics as a Profession" programme.

To build our knowledge further we will shortly be launching a new “AnalystX Observatory". This is a significant ongoing research and engagement initiative to give us insights into the shape, size and needs of the health and care analytical workforce. The Observatory will allow us to resolve some of the challenges identified by this discovery piece and inform a nation-wide programme of professional development and support. More information will follow on this very soon.

We also intend to develop and test a set of competency frameworks (an alpha) over the summer. If you work in a team of analysts and would like to be involved in this pilot work please email analytics-unit@nhsx.nhs.uk.