The value of R and its use within the NHS


Often regarded as one of the best healthcare systems in the world, the NHS was launched in 1948 with the guiding principle of being free at the point of delivery – a kind of crowd funded open-source freeware equivalent of healthcare.

In England, it deals with about 1 million people every 36 hours and is continually generating vast amounts of data on the health and care of people. This data is one of the most precious, yet under-tapped resources in the NHS.  Data is now regarded as the new gold, and drilling and mining healthcare data could improve the NHS. But excavating these mountains of data is a colossal task. This is where R comes in.

But what is R?

R was conceived in 1992 as a free, open-source statistical programming environment which is now widely used in industry and academia, including Google, Microsoft, Airbnb, New York Times and Lloyds of London. It is ranked amongst the most popular programming languages, but its use in the NHS is scant. While there are several reasons for this, the absence of R at scale in the NHS means that the NHS is unable to take advantage of the huge benefits of R, including cutting-edge visualisation and statistical tools, and a worldwide R community that freely shares learning and resources. One of the best things about R is its global following, enthusiastically supported by a friendly, sociable, shared-learning network.

Here at The Strategy Unit, we love the NHS and we love R. Our aim is to promote the use of R in the NHS and to help make the NHS better.  With seed funding from the Health Foundation’s Advancing Applied Analytics Award in 2017, the NHS-R Community project was born in March 2018.  The NHS-R Community is growing and blossoming and we are delighted announce that the Health Foundation has agreed to support the  NHS-R Community for a further three years.

“We are pleased to announce that the Health Foundation has committed to support the NHS-R Community for a further three years as part of our work funding and championing data analytics. Since being established two years ago, the Community has become an active and growing hub for analysts throughout the system to collaborate and learn how to apply R. Over the coming years, we look forward to supporting their ambition to provide a centre of excellence through which to share expertise and develop open source solutions for the NHS.”

Adam Steventon, Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation.

We have a major programme of work to undertake for the project’s next phase, and will be making announcements on our website, twitter (@NHSrCommunity), and at our annual conference. To give you a sense of demand for R, our upcoming 2019 conference was booked out in less than 2.5 hours, which means we had to find a bigger venue!

The NHS-R Community is open and inclusive so if you want to get involved, please email us at There are plenty of ways to contribute. We are always on the lookout for related blogs, training course suggestions, potential R solutions for the NHS, conference speaker/workshop requests, new NHS-R user groups, to name a few. We look forward to hearing from you!

The NHS-R Community project is a partnership with the Association of Professional Healthcare Analysts, the Improvement Academy, the NHS Midlands and Lancashire Commissioning Support Unit, the University of Bradford and the NHS Delivery Unit in Wales.