Statistics are vital: An interview with Manira Ahmad

'Statistics Are Vital' is a joint campaign by the Royal Statistical Society and Significance magazine, celebrating the work of statisticians during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The RSS speaks to Manira Ahmad, former Head of local intelligence support (LIST) at Public Health Scotland (now Chief Officer at PHS). 


‘Together we can make a difference, supported by data and insights’ 


Manira and the team at PHS produce insights relating to health, care and community to support improved local decision making and redesign of services. When the pandemic struck in 2020, they had to quickly respond to the needs of frontline services and provide the new data that was urgently needed. 

Manira joined LIST when it was still part of NHS National Services Scotland. During a five year period, her team of analysts, data managers and more has grown from 10 to c.70 and in 2020, LIST was integrated into the newly anointed Public Health Scotland.  

Responding to the pandemic 
In the midst of all of this change, the pandemic struck - and all of a sudden, there were data gaps that urgently needed filling to understand the impact of Covid-19. ‘As a brand new organisation we had to adapt at pace and develop new ways of working through open collaborations and purposeful partnerships,' Manira says. ‘We had to learn what we didn’t know before.’ The teams continued to produced a number of important outputs relating to the pandemic. One of them looked at Covid-related activity in GP practices. ‘When A&E was getting a high footfall, some people were saying GP surgeries were shut, when in fact they were flat out,’ she explains. ‘The power of insights allowed people to see that.’ 

Another project involved putting together a dashboard for a local authority with data on patients shielding from Covid-19; this is now being rolled out across Scotland. A further project modelled the potential impact of Covid-related staff absences on homecare provision. Analysis is currently ongoing to identify data sources that will help predict impact on the recovery process long term. 'Through this, and other work, PHS has continued to show that we are an adaptive national organisation with the ability to support change where it happens most, in local communities,' Manira adds.

Getting the data 
The pandemic meant that there were significant challenges when it came to accessing data. Those on the front line were often too busy to pass on the data they held, and there was pressure in Manira’s own team as some staff were redeployed to other vital Covid projects. ‘With everyone working remotely, there was a massive reliance on connectivity with data owners,’ she says. ‘Fortunately, we had deep-rooted relationships, so we knew who the key players were and through these partnerships we were able to access data and navigate the systems.’ 

Telling stories with data 
As every statistician knows, gathering the data is only half of the story; the other half is getting it out to those who need it. ‘When I became Chief Officer, my role changed to looking more strategically at the datasets we were using, to use data to tell a story and reach out to key decision makers,’ Manira says. Part of this is presenting data in a format that is easy to understand and share more widely across different online platforms. ‘Storytelling and summarising is very important,’ she continues. ‘Can you tweet and explain something in 280 characters? We need a human connection to evoke a reaction or decision. We are getting better at data conversations and people are getting better at recognising the importance of data.’  

Joining up the dots 
Describing herself as ‘more of a statistical leader than a statistician’, Manira recognises the importance of the relationship between community and primary care. ‘It’s about getting that cradle-to-grave picture,’ she explains. ‘We are continuing to link new data sources and knit this together. Health is not just about hospital, it is dependent on many social determinants. If health data doesn’t join up with housing and community services, for example, we won’t have the emotional intelligence to understand why a homeless person ends up in A&E 54 times in a single year. From our own gathered insights, we are focusing on the gaps in the data we have – for example, marginalised groups and ethnic minorities.’ 

Learning from the pandemic 
Covid has not only highlighted the importance of statistics in making good decisions, but also the statistics that matter. ‘The pandemic has shown us that if you share even a little bit of information – a sprinkling of insights – it helps people to connect it to outcomes,’ Manira says. ‘We need to capitalise on that.’ 

Continuing the ‘joined-up’ approach to health and care data that was started pre-pandemic, teams are exploring new approaches to getting data to those on the frontline such as GPs, social workers and community planning managers and more. ‘We need insights which are linked, meaningful and actionable for individuals, so we produce it once and give it to everyone’ she says. ‘We are developing whole-systems models that toggle to different people’s needs so they each get a view of insights that are suited to them through a single lens, to help make connected decisions across the whole system.’ 

These new priorities inevitably mean leaving behind some of the old ways of working pre-Covid. ‘Some may want to revive data that hasn’t been asked for since before the pandemic,’ she says. ‘We should embrace change - we are now in a different way of working. We can truly make changes with the right data and insights and asking what really matters through strength based conversations and purposeful partnerships.’ 

Read more interviews in our Statistics Are Vital series.

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