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Public health data: Going for gold

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Chief Knowledge Officer, Public health data


The Olympics have shown us how four years of training, dedication, preparation and sheer hard-work can be distilled to a millisecond, an eighth of an inch or even the arbitrary whim of judges.

Like most of us who were engrossed by Rio 2016, I discovered new sports, strange favourites (the Keirin) and scratched my head several times over the complex rules that could take a life-time to decipher.

What struck me most though is how the data and analytics involved in getting to, and competing at the Games, has become an industry in itself.

Performance data has been systematically collected since Athens 1896 and used to help competitors gain an advantage (however miniscule) ever since.

But since London 2012 the use of data has exploded and Rio is now the most data driven Olympics of all-time.


This number-crunching is now used not just to record personal bests but is also an essential resource to help athletes avoid injury; improve time, design equipment, schedule training, chose coaches and more.

It’s used to predict weather conditions, wind resistance, water temperatures, salinity, air pressure and other factors that allow competitors to predict their performance (though I’m not sure they can plan for green pool water!)

The Olympics is built on the pursuit of excellence but it is sometimes easy to forget that not every competitor starts from the same point.

The winner of the high jump isn’t always the tallest person, just as the weightlifting champion isn’t always the person with the biggest muscles.

Watching as one of Team GB’s gold medal winners, Alex Gregory, was treated for asthma after he completed his race, I was reminded of the other great athletes who have successfully managed potentially debilitating health conditions.

Using data and information to help manage their conditions, Sir Steve Redgrave (diabetes); Sir Bradley Wiggins (asthma); and Roger Black (aortic regurgitation – a serious heart condition) have all achieved sporting greatness in spite of personal health challenges that might otherwise be perceived to carry a disadvantage.

Public health data

And this is where it becomes interesting to public health, for behind every medal winner there will be a team of specialists using data to understand the present situation and the things that need to be controlled, eliminated or improved.

Within PHE there are similar teams – working to evidence effectiveness and drive improvement through the best use of data.

The local Knowledge and Intelligence Service team that covers the North West is no stranger to seeing our towns and cities topping or propping up one table or another.

Data is often presented in simple 'winning' and 'losing' terms – it can be easier for the media to use a top ten, a best and worst or a north/south comparison to grab headlines and generate clicks.

But these headlines can be demoralising, inaccurate, simplistic and repetitive for our local authorities who are making Olympian efforts to address public health issues in very challenging times.

So we need to create ways to look beyond the list of winners and losers and explore every aspect about what makes each of our local areas similar and different, identify deficiencies to be overcome and assets to be maximised.

We use the Fingertips platform to enable interested stakeholders to interrogate data in several ways, including comparing areas, analysing trends and using maps to illustrate variation.

This provides a valuable starting point for conversations about what issues need controlling, eliminating and improving.

In the North West we’re using the tools to generate insight and connect this with the people who can affect change through leadership, partnership and commissioning activities.

In particular, we are using the tools and our regional networks to bring people together in a series of deep dives to identify interventions that can be delivered at scale; and how the learning from high performing peers can be accessed and shared to benefit all.

Fulfilling potential

Recent work on sexual health for instance is an example which illustrates the value of bringing key experts and stakeholders together to generate a shared understanding of the issues, creating a sense of common purpose, and committing to action.

A facilitated workshop involving local Sexual Health leads and comprising a data diagnostic, (incorporating the newly developed chlamydia care pathway), scenario exploration and review has led to actions which all participants can take forward, and innovation that all sexual health services around the country can benefit from.

So moving beyond the simple production of intelligence and towards the supported utilisation of it is something we must continue to promote, concentrating less on the winners and losers and more on the ‘fulfilment of potential’.

This is what the successful US Olympic diving coach Ron O’Brien observed to be behind the true pursuit of excellence.

Image: Sport England

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