Unpacking the information

In the second of her series on evidence, Gwyn Owen looks at what data is and how to ensure yours stands up to scrutiny

As you’ll remember from ‘What we need is evidence’ (Frontline 5 October 2011), evidence is a collection of data, from a range of different sources, that has been analysed, then pulled together to make a case or support an argument.

This CPD feature focuses on the first step in the process of presenting evidence that demonstrates the impact of our practice.

It explains what we mean by data and how to ensure that what we collect is fit for the purpose for which we’re collecting it.

What data do we need?

The CSP’s 2009 briefing paper on patient-based information defines data as ‘facts and statistics used for reference or analysis’. This shows the importance of making sure that any data we collect to use as evidence is strong enough to withstand external scrutiny.

Critical thinking and forward planning are key to making data work to support our practice.

  • A good place to start would be to analyse the needs of the people who will be judging our practice, and examine their criteria. That will help us collect relevant data to develop convincing evidence.

The next phase is to consider what we want our data to achieve.

  • Is it, for example, to show the impact of a changing skill-mix on productivity, to justify investment in a specific grade? Or is it to demonstrate how an individual’s CPD benefits service users? Different data would be useful in each of these cases.


Where can data be found?

Data collection has become an integral part of day-to-day physiotherapy practice. So your workplace may be a potentially rich source.
It may be collected to meet legal or policy requirements. Or it may be gathered

  • through our interaction with clients and colleagues,
  • during assessment and goal-setting processes,
  • in interdepartmental meetings,
  • in peer reflection sessions.

Some data may be shared, but unless recorded and stored securely, may become lost over time.
Other data sits silently, uncollected. This could reflect:

  • ethical or practical challenges involved, or
  • our personal values (we might favour one type of data over others), or
  • our inability to see the data’s significance or future potential at the time.

And some data may be hard to find, filed away in medical records or buried in an organisation’s computer system. But there may be signposts to such ‘hidden’ data, through computer audit trails, appointment diaries or staff members themselves.

Because physiotherapy services tend to cross care pathways and organisational boundaries, we may need to build new relationships with finance teams, managers and other agencies.

This could give access to data, for example on the cost savings generated by self-referral, or productivity of a workforce with on-site physiotherapy.

Making data work

Thinking of what purpose we want particular data for, it should be possible to evaluate the data available in our day-to-day practice.

Could it multitask? For example, a case study presented as part of in-service training – reworded to ensure client confidentiality – could demonstrate either:

  • a specific physiotherapeutic approach, or
  • understanding of a medical condition, or
  • application of person-centred values.

And then, having mapped the availability of data, we need to evaluate its suitability.

  • Will it allow us to develop evidence to meet the criteria and expectations of the intended audience?
  • Are we using data from an appropriate range of sources?
  • Will it withstand scrutiny – or crumble during evaluation?
  • This critical evaluation should be central to our data collecting. We may need to use new collection processes, or tweak existing ones, to ensure what we collect is suitable.
  • Timing is important too – to ensure that data is ‘fresh’ and sits within any timeframes mentioned by the assessment criteria.

Allow enough time to process and analyse data to create evidence and a robust argument. The process must be systematic: recording it provides an audit trail for evaluation and resources for later learning. fl

  • The next article in the series will look at how we transform data into evidence.      

CSP resources to support your data collection process


  • CSP (2009) PD20: Principles of recording and using patient-based information

A briefing paper that addresses some of the issues around collection, use and storage of data gathered in clinical settings.

  • CSP standardised data collection webpage

A page on CSP’s website dedicated to data collection. It talks through the principles, with examples from practice and signposts to resources.

  • iCSP clinical information management network

Log on to iCSP and subscribe to this network to access a rich set of resources and an online community of peers with an interest in data and its management.

How to use this article towards your cpd

This CPD activity, inviting you to think critically about data collection in a hypothetical situation, could be worked through as an individual or in a group.   

You have been invited to submit a report of the impact of your practice to an external organisation. It expects your report to be based on an appropriate mix of data – both qualitative and quantitative. This organisation is especially interested in the following:

  • outcomes of your practice – effectiveness and efficiency;
  • service users’ experience of your practice; and
  • resources (for example: behaviours/knowledge/skills, equipment, finances, infrastructure) you need to maintain this practice.

Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns.

  • In the first column make a list of the data you could use to create evidence to demonstrate the impact of your practice to this organisation. 
  • Use the second column to describe what each piece of data would demonstrate.  In the third column, analyse and record which of the criteria each piece of data addresses – effectiveness, efficiency, service-user experience, or resources required.

Step back and critically review the content of your table against the criteria.

  • Does the data address the criteria equally, or is there a weighting towards a particular area?
  • Is the data coming from a range of different sources?
  • Does it support the argument you want to make?
  • Is it strong enough to withstand external scrutiny?

Now think about thepracticalities.

  • How easy would the data be to collect?
  • If already collected – can you access it easily?
  • Would collecting it differently enable you to build a stronger set of evidence?  

An electronic copy of this activity and a part-worked through example are available for you to use in the CPD webfolio which sits in your ePortfolio account at www.csp.org.uk/webfolio

Gwyn Owen

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