Health Service Focus


Shoe leather, perspiration and caffeine

Source: NHE Nov/Dec 17

NHE’s Josh Mines reports from the NHS Providers annual conference in Birmingham on the work of Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) and how organisations should look to push digital innovation forward.

To many attending NHS Providers’ annual conference on 7-8 November, the speeches given by NHS England CEO Simon Stevens and health secretary Jeremy Hunt were a stark reflection of the political tug-of-war that is waging between the government and the health service.

Stevens assertively asked the government to make good on the infamous ‘Brexit Bus’ promise of extra health funding, and warned that the NHS may have to reconsider its limits next year if the current level of funding continues. On the other side of the coin, Hunt seemed reluctant to suggest any more funding was on the way, as he continued to press the importance of organisations saving money by looking at their procurement processes and introducing smarter delivery methods.

This is where innovation comes in. Though it can often seem like huge reform through exciting new technology is the key to driving real change, as West Midlands AHSN business manager Neil Mortimer explained, it’s the little changes that are likely to be the most successful.

“Effective innovation does not equal reinvention,” he stated.  “Innovation is just doing what you don’t currently do or having what you don’t currently have. Innovation in the NHS would be to move from fax to digital communications as a start. It’s easy to say, but it’s a nightmare to do it in such a complicated institution.”

This statement is an often-used and damning reminder of quite how far behind the NHS is compared industries like banking, defence and construction when it comes to its implementation of digital technology.

In terms of improving this uptake, Mortimer said SMEs are often the best option and should be supported. “SMEs can be agile, think on their feet and respond to your needs,” he explained. “In Birmingham we have made innovation incubators for start-ups, which gives SMEs six months of free office space and free broadband, but they also get business advice. This tells them how to sit down with people in the NHS and say: ‘help me understand your problem, help me understand your tech barriers.’”

As Richard Stubbs, CEO of the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN, argued, it can often take up to 17 years for an innovation to make its way into mainstream commercial use, and it’s the job of the AHSN to try and reduce this gap. “AHSNs help people, but we are about this 17-year reduction and there are so many different programmes we use to do this,” he explained.

The work of the networks is not simply in driving the development of flashy apps and technology, but also to look at radically altering attitudes to innovation.

“When we boil down the work we do, then it always comes down to culture, which is a real elephant in the room,” Stubbs admitted. “When we think about how we tackle this problem, there isn’t going to be a Big Bang of a new way of doing things – it has to be incremental change. I’m fond of saying that, as an AHSN, our tools are shoe leather, perspiration and caffeine.”

And for real change to be delivered, innovation has to be driven and led by everyone at an organisation, the AHSN boss added: “It’s very much a hearts and minds job. Every hospital, every ward and every commissioner needs convincing to do things differently.So if we’re going to be successful it is about that cultural change, and we are all responsible for driving that innovation culture in practice.”

Though this cultural change will be difficult to implement, there’s no doubt that innovation will be essential for the NHS to continue to maintain a high standard of care. The question is, what will we look back at in five years’ time and think: ‘I can’t believe we used to do things like that?’




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