interviews

25.09.17

Simon Stevens: A hunger for innovation

Source: NHE Sep/Oct 2017

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, knows that the health service is already a world leader when it comes to medical advances – but argues that there is strong momentum across the sector to champion even further change.

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the NHS has been constantly changing and improving, yet it is quite easy to ignore all of the amazing changes in medicine and care that are happening around us. 

For instance, who would know that we’ve now got bionic eyes available on the NHS? Who would know about the computers being installed now inside knee replacements? Who would know about the hand transplants now being performed at Leeds Teaching Hospital? Or brainstem implants for profoundly deaf children and tooth in eye surgery to restore vision? 

We have also made world-leading advances in genetic technology to make sure babies at risk of mitochondrial diseases will be clear of those inherited conditions in the future. 

So I defy anybody who says that the NHS is stuck in the mud or slow in its ways; actually, the NHS is a hotbed of innovation. Clearly, as we think over the next three to five years, we need to go further, faster and accelerate what that looks like, but we are continuing to move in the right direction.

Last year, NHS England identified 23 of the NHS’s most technologically advanced acute and mental health trusts to act as ‘global digital exemplars’, which are spreading innovation in areas like digital monitoring, which allows blood pressure, heart rate and temperature data to be fed directly into patients’ records instead of being collected manually. This improves patient safety, reduces error and frees up nurses’ time to prioritise patient care. 

They are also making strides with digital online therapies and support networks to support mental health patients, video consultations and building virtual teams across different staff groups and sites. 

Harnessing technology 

Of course, it is about much more than hospitals. The NHS leads the world in its use of technology in primary care. Clever use of technology can reduce the amount of time GPs and their teams spend on non-clinical tasks.

But we can and will do more. We are making it possible for GPs to seek advice and support from hospital specialists electronically, without patients needing to attend a separate appointment. As well as being more convenient for patients, this reduces unnecessary referrals, allowing us to concentrate resources on patients that most need specialist help. 

And by the end of next year, care providers will be able to offer NHS e-referrals to every patient, allowing GPs to book patients’ hospital appointments right away with a choice of date. A far cry from the days of waiting for an allotted appointment to arrive on the doormat. 

The development of local sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) and accountable care systems offer a great opportunity, and many STPs see better use of technology as essential to improving healthcare in their areas. 

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, for example, technology is being used to reduce demand on services, as well as enabling self-care and prevention. A pilot programme is improving support for those aged over 55 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure and dementia, with integration technologies linked to new ways of supporting self-care at home. 

And in Dorset, more than 1,000 patients with diabetes, COPD and heart disease receive mobile phone apps free to help them self-manage long-term health conditions and prevent a hospital stay. The local NHS is also trialling groundbreaking new treatments for anxiety, phobias and other mental health conditions, using Virtual Reality to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders. 

Like many parts of the country, Dorset uses a Care Record that brings together information from hospitals, GPs, community teams and local councils, enabling details of a person’s medical or care history – and their needs – to be summarised in the same place. It improves co-ordination and communication between different agencies, improving treatments and reducing delays, and meaning people will have to tell their story only once. 

Accelerating new ideas 

We want to remain a world leader in generating new ideas. To develop the leaders of the future we created an NHS Digital Academy, in partnership with three of the world’s leading faculties: Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh and Harvard Medical School. The Academy will provide first-of-its-kind training for information and technology leaders across health and social care – 300 over three years. 

Not only is there a huge energy and hunger for innovation and change across the NHS in the way in which services are organised, but actually, at the fundamental treatment level, there is a lot not only in train, but in prospect. 

And our job, as NHS England and as leaders in the NHS, is to accelerate that so that we move the frontier of what modern medicine looks like faster. 

We have always had the strange balance between the obvious need to get on with it and the concern about the consequences of so doing. That is the history of innovation in every walk of life. 

But as long as the NHS continues to encourage, test, and champion the ideas of our brightest thinkers, tomorrow’s solutions will often be those we could not have predicted yesterday.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.england.nhs.uk

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editor's comment

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This edition of NHE comes hot on the heels of this year’s NHS Expo which, once again, proved to be a huge success at Manchester Central. A number of announcements were made during the event, with the health secretary naming the second wave of NHS digital pioneers, or ‘fast followers’, which follow the initial global digital e... read more >

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