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Scotland launches data strategy for health and social care

The five-year strategy aims to make it easier for people to access their own health and social care data, improve data flows between organisations, and transform the way data is used to enhance services

The Scottish government has published its first-ever data strategy for health and social care, aiming to transform the way people access their personal health and care information, and the way data is used to transform health and care services.

The five-year plan is billed as a “dynamic, evolving, living document” which will adapt and respond to any new data challenges that crop up.

The strategy focuses on both health and social care data, and the complex challenges with different systems, varying levels of digital maturity and digital skills between organisations.

It sets out eight key priority areas, including ethical approaches to data. “We acknowledge that data also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities in our health and social care sector,” the strategy said. “We recognise the need to collect and analyse data intersectionally in health and social care because inclusive data is intersectional.”

Another priority area is data access for both individuals and health and social care staff. Currently, data access for members of the public is “relatively light”, the strategy said.

However, in November 2022, Scotland launched a national digital platform, which will offer patients a digital door to both NHS and social care in the country. The platform, which currently only exists in the form of a website, is due to go live properly by the end of 2023.

“This will make it easier for people to view the information that is held about them and to exercise their right to update this in instances where the information held is incorrect,” the strategy said.

Sharing data

The digital front door can also be used to share health and social care data with other public services, such as prison services or Social Security Scotland, the strategy added.

Carol Sinclair, chair of the Scottish government’s data board for health and social care, said in the strategy’s foreword that the aim is to “empower citizens and staff” through ensuring data supports the delivery of health and social care services.

“Public trust and the ethical use of data for public good is central to this strategy,” she said.

“We are working alongside colleagues across government to ensure the principles of Open Government are followed as we define and publish key, ethically sound and publicly trusted principles to support the unlocking of the social and economic value associated with the use of public sector personal data in the service of the people of Scotland.”

For health and social care staff, the strategy aims to improve discoverability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability, making it easier to access data across organisations.

The Scottish government is already working on the replacement of the Community Health Index (CHI) system, a platform which has been in place since the 1970s. The CHI uses a unique identifier – similar to the NHS number used in England and Wales, which is assigned to each patient. The system will ensure that every time an individual’s details are recorded, it includes a valid CHI number across both health and social care, making it easier to share and access information across services.

“By modernising the CHI system, we will be better placed to support our data infrastructure, allowing better matching of data and enabling better data linkage across the health and social care sector,” the strategy said.

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The Scottish government also plans to make changes to the current information governance (IG), ensuring it appropriately balances decision-making processes over health and social care data. The strategy envisions a “federated IG model that ensures leadership and national direction while recognising the necessary and impactful part that local IG processes make”.

Another key priority for the strategy is improving information standards and interoperability in NHS and social care.

“There is currently a lack of consistency in the way data is recorded across the health and social care sector, which increases the risk of poor data quality,” the strategy said. “It is currently challenging to share data effectively across health and social care organisations.

“Improved sharing of data will be addressed through adopting common approaches to describing, storing, and making information findable and reuseable. The first step in this journey is agreeing and implementing information standards across the health and social care sector. We need to adopt robust data principles for how we collect, store and use data across health and social care.”

The strategy covers both primary uses, such as the processing of personal data for provision of health services, and secondary uses of data, including using aggregated data sets to improve planning, research and policy.

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