Bigger (data) is better

How the profession collects its data determines how it can be analysed and what you can find out about your patients. It also affects how easily different optical health professionals can work together.

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Author: Martin Cordiner, Head of Research
Date: 15 August 2016

Write down your date of birth and get someone else to write theirs down too. Now compare them. Did you do it the same way? Did you both write the full year, or just the last two digits? Was the month, ‘9’ or ‘09’? Or did you actually write the month out in words? Does any of this matter? Well yes, for the purposes of the nation’s eye health, it does.

How the profession collects its data determines how it can be analysed (indeed whether it can be analysed at all) and what you can find out about your patients. It also affects how easily different optical health professionals can work together. So the College is funding and undertaking projects on minimum data sets - agreed sets of information that everyone should collect and in what format - for both primary and secondary care.

Our Public Health Researcher project recently published a paper in the July issue of Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, ‘Can data in optometric practice be used to provide an evidence base for ophthalmic public health?’, in which the project team outlined their work in bringing the everyday practice of members and the needs of researchers together. Through questionnaires to both groups, they found that, “there was a good match between high priority metrics for research and those commonly recorded in optometric practice”. They did, though, also find that a lot of this data was being collected via free text fields, making it very difficult to aggregate and analyse (because of various versions of our date of birth problem).

How the profession collects its data determines how it can be analysed (indeed whether it can be analysed at all) and what you can find out about your patients.

To look at this further, the researchers also spoke to three of the software companies most commonly cited as being used by the optometrist respondents to gauge their adaptability to software systems with standard responses (such as drop down fields). They were, “willing to respond to changing demand”, so there is reason for optimism, even if there are still other challenges to be overcome.

One of which is how a referred patient’s total journey and outcome is tracked through secondary care, and this is where the other project comes in, our catchily titled Secondary Care Minimum Data Sets project (for which endless acronym workshopping has remained resoundingly unsuccessful). In this project, working groups of optometrists and other optical professionals are agreeing what data (in what specific formats) should be collected for some of the optometric areas of secondary care, and the first of these will soon be piloted to ensure it is fit for purpose.

This all sounds very dry, and some of it is, but the end goal is worth remembering. Once established, minimum data sets allow for the collection of huge amounts of data from across the whole country. Such ‘big data analysis’ is key to understanding trends, areas of inequality, local needs and overall patterns. This is the ‘demand’ side that can be matched up with the ‘supply’ side we explored in our Optical Workforce Survey, allowing us to help you see the full picture. So when it comes to data, bigger is certainly better.

Martin Cordiner
Head of Research, College of Optometrists

Martin graduated with a Masters in Modern History from York University in 2005, having completed his BA there in 2003. Since then he has worked in project management in higher education before joining the College and its fledgling research department in 2009, where he now supports the Director of Research and manages the research team to implement all elements of the College’s Research Strategy. 

 

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