That name looks familiar. It was then, seeing a family name in my Cold War textbook in a GCSE History lesson at school, that I began to understand the significance of who Uncle Clem really was.

Black and white portrait of Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee in 1950. Source: Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives

Clement Attlee, my grandpa’s uncle – or, to most people, the Prime Minister of Britain after the end of the Second World War, in office from 1945-1955.

I remember realising that being related to this man was rather exciting and started to find out more about him. This interest initially began as pausing Love Actually as Hugh Grant danced around Number 10 to The Pointer Sisters to see if they’d put Clem’s portrait on the wall.

As I grew older, this developed into a lifelong quiet sense of pride that Uncle Clem’s government had been the one to introduce the National Health Service (NHS), and a particular interest in health inequalities in Britain today.

The birth of the NHS

Up to 1948, following years of wartime austerity, many people had not been able to afford medical treatment. Founded in 1948 under Attlee’s government by Welsh politician Anuerin Bevan, the NHS had three principles at its core: to meet the needs of everyone, be free at the point of delivery and be based on clinical need, not the ability to pay.

Fast forward to 2023 and we’re celebrating 75 years of the NHS. It has become a unifying symbol of national pride, which two thirds of people in a YouGov poll saw as ‘Britain’s Greatest Achievement’. We’re known around the world for our NHS and access to healthcare that remains free at the point of delivery.

A powerful tool for good

Life today presents new challenges and new opportunities to improve universal healthcare in Britain. Having studied Public Health at university, but never venturing into the clinical sphere, I focused my interests on data as a powerful tool for good.

Collecting and organising big population level datasets has the potential to bring about life changing discoveries, including improving quality of life, clinical care, reducing inequalities, improving diagnosis and treatments, informing safety. Making sense out of a jumble of numbers, seeing patterns emerge, and then realising that understanding those patterns could be groundbreaking in delivering real benefits to people really drew me in as I looked for a way to be part of bringing about positive health changes at a population level.

Improving lives through NHS healthcare data

Throughout my time at HDR UK, my eyes have been opened to the different ways that large health datasets can improve lives.

Clinical studies on health conditions rely on gold standard health data to find out what causes them, what works to treat them, and who is more likely to get them and why. The RECOVERY trial identified life-saving treatments at a critical time during the pandemic and is credited with having saved millions of lives worldwide. HDR UK’s NHS DigiTrials Hub supported the rapid set-up and recruitment of RECOVERY by enabling vital safe access to healthcare data at an unprecedented speed compared with clinical trials before the pandemic. This example really shows the power of data-enabled clinical trials.

But clinical trials are far from the only way that health data can make a difference. Research using population data continues to improve our knowledge of health and care in many areas. For example, earlier this year a study from the BHF Data Science Centre found that nearly half a million people missed out on starting medication to lower their blood pressure during the pandemic. This research which used data on NHS prescriptions issued by pharmacies across the UK has led to many of those same pharmacies now offering more free blood pressure tests to people who need them.

Looking to the future

The NHS was born 75 years ago under my Uncle Clem’s government with a strong mission to deliver healthcare to all who needed it in a Britain emerging from wartime austerity. Times have changed, but pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have brought the health inequalities that prevail in our society today into the spotlight.

These aren’t problems that can be solved overnight, but knowledge is power. I firmly believe that health data research can provide invaluable knowledge for policymakers to make good, well-informed decisions on how best to tackle these challenges.