A new health and data strategy for Scotland will build on the appetite of the public during the Covid pandemic to use healthcare data and statistics in treatment and care.

The Health and Social Care: Data Strategy, published at the end of February, will seek to provide citizens with greater access to their own information and address “gaps and weaknesses in how we collect, share and analyse data to improve health outcomes”.

The 80-page document, produced jointly by the Scottish Government and local government body Cosla, is part of a commitment of the wider Care in the Digital Age strategy, updated in October 2021, and its supporting delivery plan, published in November 2022. 

Its publication follows a lengthy period of stakeholder engagement and public consultation, and is founded on three key ambitions:

  • Empowering people in Scotland by giving individuals clear and easy access to their own health and social care data, and the ability to manage and contribute to it, where safe and appropriate.
  • Empowering staff providing health and social care support to have the ability and confidence to gather, use, and share data safely and securely to improve services and outcomes.
  • Ensuring fit-for-purpose data is accessible safely and securely for planning, research, and innovation; and used for the benefit and wellbeing of individuals and the public including development of new ways of working, new treatments and technologies, and improving care. 

Humza Yousaf, health secretary at the time of writing, and Councillor Paul Kelly, Cosla spokesperson for health and social care, said in a joint foreword: “The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the important role that maximising data can have in the delivery of health and social care. But it also highlighted the significant gaps in data, particularly in relation to unmet need in social care.

“Our strategy set our vision and ambitions to ensure that the data landscape is best placed to support key priorities. These ambitions will help us in supporting key missions across the health and social care sector, such as improving population health and reducing health inequalities as part of the Care and Wellbeing Portfolio approach.

“This first Data Strategy for Health and Social Care lays the groundwork for transforming the way we as members of the public access and use our data to improve our own health and wellbeing. 

“It also sets out the foundations for improving how health and social care is delivered including delivering improvements to our systems and infrastructure. Our strategy has applied the principles of the Scottish Approach to Service Design. 

“This means that people are at the heart of every decision that has been made, and will continue to be at the centre of the strategy as we evolve and develop it.”

Eight “priority areas” were identified in the report, each with its own set of “headline commitments” that the strategy aims to deliver. 

For example, for “data access”, the report noted that under current arrangements individuals find it difficult to access their data, and the process “mostly relies on people formally requesting access to their information in a time-consuming way”. 

To address that, work is underway to develop a Digital Front Door which will provide the public with digital access to their health and social care information.

There is a similar commitment to allow better data access to professionals engaged in research and innovation work, including non-public sector organisations, where it is “safe and lawful” to do so. A first release of the Digital Front Door will be launched in late 2023. 

The “protecting and sharing data” section of the report sets out an ambition to create a “trusted, secure health and care ecosystem where data is shared, managed and stored securely, consistently, efficiently and transparently”. 

However, it observes that currently the “diverse nature of health and social care delivery across Scotland – with several thousand different legal organisations (from health boards to care homes), makes the protection and sharing of data inherently complex”. 

The plan therefore is to take a more streamlined approach to governance, assurance, and management of information assets that is “more coherent and less fragmented across health and social care, to enable the realisation of benefits from digital and data-driven innovation”. 

A cybersecurity strategy for health and social is another key pledge to bolstering the security of NHS and social care systems.

The other priority areas of the report focus on “talent and culture”, “technology and infrastructure”, “information standards and interoperability”, “creating insights from data” and “supporting research and innovation”.