ublic spending watchdog the Audit Commission has effectively given the National Health Service a slap on the wrist for failing to collect reliable performance data despite the increasing importance of such information to improving patient care.

According to the Commission’s latest report Figures You Can Trust: A Briefing on Data Quality in the NHS, the quality of the data collected by hospitals fluctuates widely around the country, with recent findings suggesting that some error rates are as low as 0.3% while others are as high as 52%.

According to the Commission, since it last carried out a review of NHS data quality back in 2004, there has been a greater focus on the collection of data “but efforts to improve its quality have not kept pace”.

It claims that, while some improvements have been made, such as the development of patient-level costing and service line reporting, all of the issues raised in its previous report five years ago “are still largely relevant today” because there has been “limited” progress in these areas to date.

In its report, the Commission stresses the need for a more “coordinated and joined-up approach to reviewing and supporting the development of data quality by key stakeholders and regulators”, and it highlights further issues of inadequate data quality programmes and very few reviews of data accuracy as barriers to progress.

Accountability and choice
Lord Darzi’s Next Stage Review underscored the importance of collecting good quality data within the NHS to help enable patients to make informed choices about their healthcare, as well as increase accountability through the development of quality accounts.

According to the Commission, the responsibility for this and the development of effective local processes to provide quality assurance lies with each individual organisation, but it says there is still “a lack of prominence and importance” associated with data quality at the board level, which is preventing it from being effectively embedded into practice.

The report calls for clear leadership from the Department of Health, management, clinicians and regulators to help drive improvements to NHS data quality, but it also suggests that greater clinical engagement, a stronger interest at board-level, external monitoring and review and a greater degree of support for organisations are crucial to making progress in this area.