Like so many other health events this year, Digital Health’s annual Summer School had to make huge logistical changes, but Jon Hoeksma and the team took it in their stride, organising a jam-packed schedule of talks, networking opportunities and discussion sessions online. Not being able to meet in person also had its advantages; international speakers from as far Australia and New Zealand were able to participate and provide insight into their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we got to sleep in our own beds (rather than the infamous student accommodation!).
Digital Health used CrowdComms as their virtual platform. Once signed in, registered attendees were welcomed with a ‘hub’ space, with access to the day’s schedule, presented as individual hyperlinked tabs, which, when selected, took attendees into each talk. The hub also hosted options to view and chat to the event speakers, and attendees could enter a ‘Virtual Lounge’ for networking, take a Summer Schools quiz and/or schedule a meeting with one of the sponsors. When the webinars were live, each speaker had a clear webcam image, with audio that was easy to hear and respective presentations that went without a hitch. Having each facet of the event available on a single platform, without having to find every individual video conferencing link, was extremely convenient.
And whilst being able to network in person – like previous years – provides added value, at least attendees could sleep in the comfort of their own homes (and avoid the student accommodation from previous years). Being able to choose our own food also had its advantages!
There were a diverse array of speakers in the programme, ranging from national policy makers and frontline staff in the NHS and from international healthcare systems.They offered unique COVID-focused perspectives, through video diaries and case studies, to in-depth panel discussions and webinar presentations.
The standout speakers included the Shuri Network – a group supporting BAME women in digital health leadership – who returned on the first year anniversary since their inception. The presentation was enthusiastically received, and I was struck by the passion from Co-Founders, Sarah Amani and Shera Chok. It was also great to hear from speakers from Australia and New Zealand – including ex national CCIO for the NHS, Professor Keith McNeil, who is now acting deputy director-general and chief medical officer at the Prevention Division. The speakers presented an entirely new and especially interesting angle for the School – the virtual platform facilitating insight into international areas of healthcare and digital health that would have otherwise been difficult to host.
Other speakers of note included, NHSX CEO and CIO, Matthew Gould and Sonia Patel, and CEO at NHS Digital Sarah Wilkinson.
As the event was only available to Digital Health Network members and sponsors, and Chatham House rules applied to most of the sessions, there were some limitations in terms of content, notably that the highly-sought after content was unavailable to a wider audience. If the event is to remain virtual next year (or for other similar events), we would suggest making some more sessions open, so that non-network attendees can see the value (which, in turn, could drive up Network numbers).
However, those with access were no doubt impressed with the high-calibre of content, which focused solely on the response to the coronavirus pandemic. The programme showcased extreme resilience from those working in healthcare and impressive advancements in the digital healthcare agenda, both in the UK and internationally. And whilst it was a brilliant platform to show and share examples of how COVID-19 was handled, I think the variety of topics that usually make the Summer School so engaging were somewhat missed.
A particularly interesting panel discussion came in the form of Sonia Patel and Natasha Phillips virtual debate, chaired by Lisa Emery, CIO of The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. Phillips emphasised that a priority for her during the health crisis had been making sure that senior leadership tiers were comfortable with adopting digital technology, as they usually posed barriers under normal circumstances. Patel followed up by commenting that COVID-19 has been the “CIO’s hour”, as all their digital suggestions now became essential.
It was a refreshing and fascinating addition to include representatives from New Zealand and Australia. Prof. Keith McNeil, acting Deputy Director-General and Chief Medical Officer, Prevention Division of the Australian health service and former NHS CCIO, reflected on the importance of data sharing. He used the quote, ‘you can build a plane while it is flying, even if it’s flying at high velocity, but it will be a bumpy ride and you need structures’ as a catch-all for Australia’s digital response to the health crisis. This quote was used more than once in other presentations, which emphasised the levelling nature of the disease, and how it has exposed the readiness of every country’s health system.
Perhaps one of the most engaging sections – that managed to avoid talk of COVID-19 almost entirely – was that of the Shuri Network one year anniversary. Dr. Shera Chok made a particularly hard-hitting point, by posing three striking questions to all digital health leaders, which asked both BAME health leaders and allies to consider how they intended to tackle inequality in the NHS and beyond. Such direct questioning was extremely refreshing to witness, as Chok implored attendees to dismantle systemic discrimination – it felt like somewhat of a turning point on the path to ending inequality in the health system. Something which was further emphasised by the oversubscribed Q&A session which followed.
In conclusion, although the topics largely focused on COVID-19 (understandably so, given the circumstances), it was relevant, engaging and genuinely insightful – covering the benefits of such rapid digital implementation and its effects throughout the UK and the world.
Along with a jam packed conference agenda, there were some really nice extra features to help it feel inclusive, and as fun as it would have been if everyone was together. There were opportunities to network between each section, ‘Virtual Happy Hours’ and multiple light-hearted awards, including ‘Top Networker’, ‘Best Lockdown Haircut’, ‘Top Tweeter’ and ‘Best Home Office Pet Pic’. Integrating all these added extras kept the ball rolling throughout the two days, maintaining engagement and interlacing some levity along the way.
Despite obvious constraints on the usual run of events, this year’s virtual School was not dampened by being run remotely. Allowing for international participation, a fuller schedule and earlier starts, the Summer Schools put everything into making the most of a difficult situation. Admittedly there were some unavoidable aspects which would have offered more value from being carried out in person – such as networking and panel discussions – but the content was no less engaging. And enhancing factors, such as the virtual lounge and online collaboration meant that speakers and attendees could go some way in reaping all the usual benefits from the Summer School. All in all, it was a fantastic, insightful event that went extremely smoothly, keeping attendees glued to their screens throughout!
Overall Silver Buck rating: