Northern Ireland has always needed to keep registers of GPs and other health providers. Now, at least some people in its government and health and social care service are looking to release the GP register as open data: a single list of GPs in Northern Ireland that is available in machine readable format.
Why? Session leader Steven Barry explained:
“Lots of government departments have lots of service information, but it is often collected manually, so when somebody leaves it stops, or people do it differently.
“Working in the health service, our statistics guys were spending a lot of time presenting data instead of putting it out in a standard profile and letting the community do things with it.
“Simon Hamilton, our minister of finance, is a very young guy, and he was very interested in what is happening in Estonia. So he has been right behind this.”
There are technical challenges with creating registers. Most obviously, how are they going to be populated? If there is a register of practices and a register of GPs, how are they going to be aligned?
And if there is more information, such as how big a population the practice serves, how is this going to be kept up to date?
One session participant said that in England and Wales, at least, there is no agreement on what a GP is. But at least six organisations hold lists of GPs, which have different categories of information within them.
Barry’s register tackles some of these issues. But having seen it, some session participants pointed out that it still has limitations. There are identifiers, for example, but no information about what they are, who assigns them or how they can be used.
And the register is only available in a limited number of formats. One participant pointed out, though, that the technical problems can be solved. What is needed is people who want to solve them. Projects need stakeholders and users.
Finding uses and users
So, with a register in place, what might people be able to do with it? “In England, NHS Digital has been allowing people to rate their GPs,” Barry said.
“So if you use Bing, you can search for a GP, and see practices by rating. I looked at the GPs in Paddington and they were all two stars. I thought that must be a bit demoralising for the GP.
“And what I wanted to know was things like how many people does the GP look after, are they male or female, when and where were they trained, and what services do they offer?”
UK governments all want to give people more choice of GP, so other people are going to want the same information. Even though finding a GP with an open list can be a whole new challenge…
And health and care services have been investing in chief clinical information officers; doctors and other health professionals with an interest in IT and data. So they might be advocates for this kind of development. There are champions for change out there, the session concluded. The trick will be finding and using them.