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The past, present and future of our GP data service

Kathryn Salt, Head of Service for Open Data and Publications, and winner of the 'Women in IT Awards Data Leader of the year' 2021, provides an insight into how the data collected by GPs is being used, how it's helping to save lives and what the challenges are for the future.

The most important way that we use data is to care for patients. When the pandemic hit, my team was called upon to play a vital role in pulling together GP data and turning it into valuable insight to help keep vulnerable people safe.

Kathryn Salt inside NHS Digital's offices in Leeds

The General Practice Extraction Service (GPES) is the tech we (NHS Digital) use to collect and process GP data and we needed to maximise its capability  to meet the challenge and help save lives.

GPES was used to collect data from GP practices to identify patients who were clinically extremely vulnerable, which in turn created the Shielded Patient List. From March 2020 to June 2022 this data was collected on a weekly basis and shared with the Cabinet Office, local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups, hospitals, GP practices, 111 services and mental health providers for the protection of vulnerable patients. 

GP data, collected by GPES, has been used to deliver services that have been a lifeline for many patients, including food parcels, prescriptions, and mental health services.

Without GPES, it would have taken significantly longer for the country to get back to a more normal way of life.

GPES was also used to support the planning of the vaccine roll-out, with the data being used to define the patient cohorts for inviting patients for COVID-19 vaccinations, based on guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on priority groupings.

It has been particularly important for identifying patients who were clinically extremely vulnerable or those with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality. 

GPES was integral to the national fight against COVID-19

I am incredibly proud of how we responded to this challenge, in the most difficult of circumstances. Our work with GPES was integral to the national fight against COVID-19; it was pivotal in creating the Shielded Patients List, protecting 3.8 million people and saving thousands of lives, and supporting many millions more to access COVID-19 vaccinations in a way which protected the patients at highest risk.

Without GPES, it would have taken significantly longer for the country to be able to relax restrictions and get back to a more normal way of life.

This information is used to help us to quickly and accurately identify people who need particular treatments and services, such as screening and vaccinations.

The work my team does supports the successful day-to-day operation of the NHS. When we visit our GP, we’re all familiar with notes being taken and stats recorded, but we rarely think about what happens with that information past the point of diagnosis.

This information is used to help us to quickly and accurately identify people who need particular treatments and services such as screening or vaccinations. We also use it to pay GPs for the services they provide.

The wide range of purposes GPES is used for includes:

  • identifying people who are diabetic and recalling them for eye screening to prevent blindness
  • providing invitations for COVID-19 and flu vaccinations in line with eligibility and which priority group people fall into
  • identifying those who are clinically vulnerable to COVID-19 and need therapeutic drug prescriptions if they test positive
  • calculating payments for GP practices, to the tune of £1.3 billion per year

Each collection of data is called an ‘extract’. These only take place when we receive a direction from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care or NHS England and we only use data for specific, defined reasons like the examples above.

Each direction is supported by a Data Provision Notice, which tells GPs what we intend to collect, the legal basis for the collection and details of the purpose and benefits. We work in the open, publishing details of all the data we currently collect, the purposes and the benefits, and enable GPs to be able to tell patients what their data is being used for. This is important.

We must modernise our approach

Whilst the pandemic demonstrated the power of GP data in planning and delivering services, and supporting vital research, it also served to highlight a service under pressure.

The NHS is powered by data, and the need to do more sophisticated analysis of GP data will continue to grow. I mentioned earlier that we stretched GPES to its limits to combat COVID-19, and this, combined with new requests for data (such as for care related to eradicating Hepatitis C, provision of other vaccination services and for the Enhanced Protection Programme which is running this winter to carry on supporting people at greater risk if they contracted COVID-19), risk outweighing the capacity and capability of the 10-year-old system.

My team and I are passionate about delivering the best service possible to support patient care. This is why we are continually challenging ourselves and speaking to GPs and other stakeholders to evolve and improve our working practices and systems. GPES is now an ageing system and it’s clear that we need to modernise our approach ensuring we have modern capabilities and increased capacity to meet existing and emerging demand, whilst maintaining security and robust governance arrangements to safeguard patient data.  

We need to modernise the way we manage this data so that it can continue to support patient care without compromising systems or wasting GPs’ precious time.

The  NHS Long-Term Plan calls for health and care staff to be supported by technology which helps them complete administrative tasks more quickly, freeing up time to spend with patients. We take seriously our role in giving stretched clinicians more time with patients. We need to modernise the way we manage this data so that it can continue to support patient care without compromising systems or wasting GPs’ precious time.

We don’t work in isolation, which is why we will explore any new approach collaboratively, engaging with the GP profession and key stakeholders to shape our thinking and plans. As always, we will seek the views of patients and the public to understand and address their concerns. Protecting and improving patient care will always remain our firm focus as we continue to take the service forward.

I am so proud of what the team have achieved in the past few years, their hard work and commitment has been nothing short of exceptional. Whist it has undoubtedly been hard, it will always be a standout moment in my career. Our next challenge is to deliver the right systems and processes to safeguard these services for the future.

Related subjects

Grace Melvin, co-chair of the GP Data Patient and Public Engagement Advisory Panel, explains the importance of putting people's voices and concerns at the heart of the effort to improve the NHS's use of GP data.
Peter Short, clinical lead for the GP Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) programme, picks out some of the key points from a survey of GP staff about the use of GP data – and explains how it is shaping the programme's thinking.
Eva Simmonds, programme head for GP Data, reflects on how NHS data powers the NHS and provides an update on the GP Data for Planning and Research programme.


Last edited: 19 October 2022 5:26 pm