In Conversation with Vicky Mathwin, Deputy Director (acting) Information and Intelligence (Specialised Commissioning) NHS England
Vicky’s story is part of a series of articles highlighting the careers of female tech leaders within the NHS. We’ve brought together these stories in an effort to prove that the route to leadership is never a straight line.
Growing up on Teesside, Vicky went to Leeds University to study neuroscience and joined the NHS on the Graduate Management scheme in 2006. Starting with operational acute hospital management , Vicky went from a number of different roles including Business Management in Leeds, to managing the cancer services in Bradford where she was responsible for collection and reporting on cancer waiting times, and managing access to services, followed by operational management of elderly and intermediate care services at the same trust.
When Vicky and her Husband had their little boy, Vicky had time to reflect on the work she was doing in an acute setting and its demands. With a need for increased job flexibility in mind, Vicky applied for a job as Head of Business Intelligence in Specialised Commisioning at NHS England in the North region and was successful.
In what was her first move into BI, Vicky was very successful. Spending five years as the Head of BI in the North before moving into the National Specialised Commisioning Team as the Deputy Director of Information and Intelligence.
Data and Curiosity
Vicky had her heart set on being an Acute Operational Manager for a long time and the career moves she made supported her move up that ladder. That was until she reassessed her priorities and interests and found that she had always held a passion for data and analytics.
“I was always very interested in analytics from an end user perspective. As a manager, I wanted to analyse data about my service. I found myself really being drawn into analysis of that raw data to support service development.
As data is made available to more people within organizations, we’re seeing an increased emphasis on the importance of data literacy and data storytelling. Both of these data skills are essential to democratizing data and extracting value from your data investments. However, between these two skills sits another crucial ability that hasn’t received as much attention. Data curiosity is the connective tissue that ties these two key areas together.
For Vicky, this curiosity is key.
“I like to look at data and fiddle about with it, and not necessarily go at it with a particular question in mind. Sometimes, we want to use data to provide evidence for a particular theory, or to support a direction of travel. Equally, sometimes it's nice to explore the data with a more open mind, using data mining and visualisations to construct a story, and to guide the direction of the system.
Data Needs to Support What People are Trying to Do
Anyone who works in or within the digital scene will have noticed the increasingly common claims of agencies to be ‘data-driven’ and ‘insight-led’. Which is great, right?
Since the start of the pandemic, data and dashboards have been on the lips of everyone thanks in no small part to the usage of it by the government in updates and briefings to the public. We’ve spoken to many data professionals on this series who have worked hard on the reporting functions that supported that effort.
For Vicky and her team, every single resource they had at the start of the pandemic was diverted to support the COVID response and recovery. Vicky hopes that the progress they’ve made as a data-driven and support organisation will continue long after the pandemic.
“If we can take any sort of positive out of what has been a really traumatic year is that so many of the bureaucratic barriers to collection and sharing of data have been circumvented, rightly so for a really, really strong benefit. And we need to be able to build on that going forward.”
For Vicky, one of the large barriers that still remains is the way that the public understands how the NHS is structured.
“There’s perhaps an assumption in the general public that if you’re giving your data to ‘the NHS’ that is shareable within the NHS. What is less transparent and more poorly understood is that the NHS is actually a lot of different organisations and sharing between those organisations is something I think the public expects to happen. We need to make progress with data sharing and interoperability, but still make sure we’re meeting our responsibilities with respect to information governance.”
Collecting data is one thing, but what tangible results can you expect? For Vicky, there needs to be a balance between being data driven in your decision making and being aware of data’s supporting role in existing services.
“Data can drive services development and delivery, and data can support those things. It’s important for data and analytical skills to be brought into projects from the outset to help ‘forming’ a good understanding of the issues at hand. It’s equally important for data and analytics to provide support to clinical services operationally to drive continual improvement. Being data-driven is important, but our healthcare system needs data that is ‘joined up’ and providing intelligence and insight."
Instead of looking at the data and trying to forge a direction from it, Vicky argues that sometimes it’s better to do what you know is the right thing from a patient perspective and use the data to support the journey towards that.
Respecting our Lived Experience
It’s key, for Vicky, to respect the experiences that we’ve been through and look past the rubber stamps and certificates as symbols of how far we’ve come.
“Experience is really, really valuable but it is easy to overlook that.”
Moving away from the day-to-day activities of a role can be challenging when you’ve done them for the past however many years, and that can feel like you’re diluting your own knowledge to some extent and that, in turn, can push you on to the next certificate, the next degree.
“Certainly, in the past I have pursued qualifications over valuing my experience. Although I enjoy study and expanding my knowledge base, sometimes it is hopelessly at odds with the amount of time that I've got to do any of it. And in reality, actually, I don't necessarily need more ‘qualifications’. I've got enough lived experience to be able to make my way without it.”
Remember what the NHS is here For
For those looking to follow in Vicky’s footsteps and move into a technical leadership position within the NHS, Vicky has this advice:
“Keep your mind on what the health service is here for. Because all too often, I think, particularly being in sort of more strategic policy and commissioning when at the national level, we're at risk of detaching ourselves from the ultimate goal, which is to provide excellent care, safe care, and value for taxpayers money, that's what we're here to do. And always being able to link back to that core purpose has been really, really important to me.”