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The Quest - To Improve the NHS Estate Returns Information Collection (ERIC) Process

October 5, 2020

The following details a project undertaken in association with a leading UK NHS Foundation Trust, to produce commercially available software to manage their ERIC Process.

The Estates Returns Information Collection (ERIC) captures information relating to the costs of providing and maintaining the NHS Estate, including buildings, maintaining and equipping hospitals, the provision of services including cleaning, laundry, food and portering, together with the consumption and associated costs of utilities. This description just rolls off the tongue, it all seems so straightforward - that is until you drill down and examine what it all, exactly means.

The problem is that even a moderately sized Trust has a considerable estate, and associated services and utilities. In addition to this collating the information to deliver the return can be a logistical nightmare. It can take an inordinate amount of time, involves high levels of coordination across disparate teams, often staff are working with complicated spreadsheets with the inevitable version clash or creep!

We were asked to provide support for the annual ERIC project by Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL). The application was designed to improve the processes around collecting, collating, and computing, estate and finance data. The aim was to achieve high quality data reporting to NHS Digital, by implementing an automated ERIC reporting solution.

Another key objective was to develop a system which provided a common, Trust Wide, accessible platform to handle the raw data, rules, and multiple sources, thereby reducing the risk of human error and saving operational resources. This resulted in dynamic feeds from systems such as their Property Management Software. This allowed instant access to the most up to date information available, it also avoided misinterpreting definitions and metrics, for example net gross area, or the double accounting of overheads. This also avoided reliance on one individual, or organisation, to retain corporate history and “own” the data, while consistently assuring ‘one version of the truth’ in the ERIC return.

One issue raised following analysis of the national results for the 2017/2018 return was some errors in reported data by some Trusts. This resulted in NHS Digital reminding readers to treat them with caution. It was acknowledged in the report summary, that much of this could be attributed to the fact that the measures being reported were new, and to some degree experimental. To illustrate, it highlighted some anomalies in reporting ‘unserved meals’ data.

Another key aim of the ERIC Automated Solution, developed in the above case study, was to minimise the risk of data inaccuracies.  This was achieved as a result of its various data validation features, providing a framework for ensuring the robustness and compliance with the reporting criteria. To illustrate, the known issues section of the Estates Return Information Collection (ERIC) 2017/18, Data Quality Report 2018 (on page 5 also available from the report summary link), highlighted reliability warnings for several data fields. Whilst these inaccuracies were marginal across the national collection, software that helps improve accuracy, not only makes the reporting organisation’s activity easier, it also makes for a more robust overview of the resultant data when combined with other Trusts.

Another key benefit of the software is consistency of reporting. Each Trust has different estate and facility needs. These result in different approaches to managing assets locally. These differences will create corresponding variances in terminology and reporting criteria. When it comes to creating a national report, with consistent accurate data from multiple organisations, one can begin to imagine the difficulties. The ERIC report places the onus on the local NHS Trust to supply the data in a nationally consistent format. Having a specific application designed to help manage these data inconsistencies, and, validate local data against the national criteria is invaluable. This also assists those entrusted to undertake the data gathering immensely.

It is an advantage to have a solution that automatically incorporates all the latest data definitions, and provides a mechanism to reconcile the previous year’s data definitions with this and subsequent years.

The result for the Trust, was a real-time platform which provides a central point of truth referencing real data, and enabling them to significantly eliminate redundant data. If information is maintained throughout the year, then a return can be submitted almost automatically. It allows different stakeholders, with varying roles, the ability to interrogate data from a range of views. It offers a simple intuitive route to accessing information, and, facilitates easy user experience. Once the first year’s annual return was completed, the workload in subsequent years was observed as being significantly reduced. All in all, it takes an important task, that can be seen as a challenge, and makes it a simpler process to manage.

Consequently, the ERIC Automated Solution is now licensable for all Trusts to use to complete their returns. This can be seen as a considerable step forward in empowering Trusts to deliver this key report estate and facility information to NHS Digital.

Vernon Chapman


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