Approaches to addressing unwarranted variation in health care service delivery have traditionally relied on the prospective identification of activities and outcomes, based on a hypothesis, with subsequent reporting against defined measures. Practice-level prescribing data in England are made publicly available by the National Health Service (NHS) Business Services Authority for all general practices. There is an opportunity to adopt a more data-driven approach to capture variability and identify outliers by applying hypothesis-free, data-driven algorithms to national data sets.
This study aimed to develop and apply a hypothesis-free algorithm to identify unusual prescribing behavior in primary care data at multiple administrative levels in the NHS in England and to visualize these results using organization-specific interactive dashboards, thereby demonstrating proof of concept for prioritization approaches.
Here we report a new data-driven approach to quantify how “unusual” the prescribing rates of a particular chemical within an organization are as compared to peer organizations, over a period of 6 months (June-December 2021). This is followed by a ranking to identify which chemicals are the most notable outliers in each organization. These outlying chemicals are calculated for all practices, primary care networks, clinical commissioning groups, and sustainability and transformation partnerships in England. Our results are presented via organization-specific interactive dashboards, the iterative development of which has been informed by user feedback.
We developed interactive dashboards for every practice (n=6476) in England, highlighting the unusual prescribing of 2369 chemicals (dashboards are also provided for 42 sustainability and transformation partnerships, 106 clinical commissioning groups, and 1257 primary care networks). User feedback and internal review of case studies demonstrate that our methodology identifies prescribing behavior that sometimes warrants further investigation or is a known issue.
Data-driven approaches have the potential to overcome existing biases with regard to the planning and execution of audits, interventions, and policy making within NHS organizations, potentially revealing new targets for improved health care service delivery. We present our dashboards as a proof of concept for generating candidate lists to aid expert users in their interpretation of prescribing data and prioritize further investigations and qualitative research in terms of potential targets for improved performance.