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British Academy at the Liberal Democrat Conference: Data and the NHS

Blog • • Jonathan Lima-Matthews

This is the first in a series of blogs by the Policy team covering this year’s party conferences

Snapshot of conference

For another year, the beach getaway of Bournemouth was taken over by party staffers, supporters and journalists for this year’s Liberal Democrat conference. From Vince Cable to Lord Rennard, party grandees were moving around the corridors of the Bournemouth International Centre conducting high level discussions and taking interviews with the press. And, although I imagine spirits were slightly lower this year compared with previous years, given the party’s significant losses at the general election, there was an air of confidence in the new leader Tim Farron and an interest in starting to shape future policy positions.

Quantitative Skills in the UK

In June this year the Academy launched its wide ranging report, Count Us In, a thorough review of where the UK stands in terms of its quantitative skills capability –  the ability to reason using numbers. As part of this report, we developed a series of recommendations to government to reform the education system and support employers, to enhance the quantitative capability of Britons.

Why is this important for the UK? Put simply, we stand to benefit economically to the tune of £1.8bn per year just by engaging more with public sector data; the UK can remain at the forefront of research and innovation by incorporating cutting edge data methods into research; and finally a more data literate Britain has democratic benefits, where the average Briton would be able to be more discerning of the data arguments put forward by governments and political parties.

Debating the NHS

To raise awareness of the importance of engaging with data on public policy issues, we teamed up with the Guardian’s Big Idea’s events series to challenge the numbers behind one of the UK’s most sensitive public institutions: the NHS. To kick the start the debate, we took a panel of experts to give us their views on data and the NHS, which yielded some interesting reflections on how critical data is to our health service. All panellists recognised the strong connection between the informed use of data and a quality healthcare service, not just in terms of creating policy but also for NHS service users too, who can make smart decisions about where to be treated and keep their health service in check, if they engage with the data widely available to them.

Norman Lamb MP, former health minister, raised a concern relating to his personal experience as minister responsible for mental health in the Coalition Government, which related to the lack of data being collected within government on the relocation of some mental health patients, some far away from home. This is one aspect of health care, he added, that desperately needs strong data collection and a dedicated, numbers-savvy team of civil servants to address the issue. The former minister commended the NHS and Department for Health’s initiative several years ago on collecting data on cancer to improve care for the disease, as a shining example of how numbers can produce innovative solutions to healthcare problems.

On the issue of quantitative skills, Professor Sarah Curtis, a Fellow of the British Academy and an expert on the geography of healthcare, argued the point that the UK is in a war of hearts and minds over numbers because “so many are uncomfortable with numbers and not moved by them.” This is clear from research in Count Us In that shows up to 75% of employed 16—65 year olds are unable to compare the best buy at a supermarket.

Future food for thought

The discussion at conference provided a stimulating discussion on how the use of numbers can help keep the NHS functioning in a challenging environment, but it also underlined areas where more needs to be done, particularly on quantitative capability and the UK’s comfort with numbers. Baroness Judith Jolly, herself a former maths teacher and health minister, questioned whether we can trust official statistics. We’d like to think that we can, as long as we have more people in the UK with the ability to understand and question those statistics.

Next week: Join the Academy at the Labour Party conference in Brighton

Jonathan Lima-Matthews is Policy Adviser at the British Academy.