Identifying critical points when children need extra support

Ruth Gilbert is a paediatrician and professor at University College London

"I trained as a children’s doctor but have worked in research for the last 25 years. I mainly use administrative data, which is data collected every time you use a service, such as visiting hospital, to understand patterns of people’s health care use across the country.

"Recent access to de-identified data from hospital and schools is particularly valuable as we can follow groups of people over time, meaning patterns of attendance at hospital, or of attainment or absences at school, can be tracked through someone's life as they transition through NHS services and school. We can see groups of children who do well and groups who receive support, which allows us to identify critical points where children run into issues, such as the transition between primary and secondary school, when schools and health care might need to offer more support.

"We can also see if there’s a postcode lottery in how care is delivered where people live - we can see which areas are doing well and learn from them, and close the gap in inequalities in those areas which are more deprived. For example, we know that children with Down’s syndrome should be supported with special educational needs provision as soon as they start school, but in some areas this support doesn’t happen until later on.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has helped us to link up data from health, education and social care, following children from birth, through their school years and beyond, which means we can look at those with chronic conditions early in life and see what support they need as they progress. We can also test out different ways of delivering care and modify and improve services much more quickly with close to real-time evidence. For example, if a school makes it easy for a child to manage their asthma by providing easy access to their inhaler, it's less likely they will need time off from school due to illness.

"I believe that the public should support the way we use data as it’s very safe, with no way of identifying people. All personal information is stripped out. The benefits of using joined-up data are, literally, life-changing."