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Innovation in healthcare: have we learned from our mistakes?

Published by
Rory Bibb
PR & Marketing Executive, Silver Buck

We’ve been here before…

For those of you who don’t know – and as an unwelcome reminder for those of you who do – the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) was a top-down, centrally managed NHS digitisation programme, introduced as the solution for bringing the NHS’ information technology into the 21st century. And yet, 16 years since its inception – and with an 11.4 billion-pound hole smouldering in our pockets – we’re still talking about the very problems the NPfIT set out to resolve.

By now, most of us harbour a practical and/or comprehensive understanding of why NPfIT is deemed to have failed – poor clinical engagement, lack of innovation and a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach – and it is with this knowledge and experience that we should expect to build real and lasting changes to IT in healthcare today. But have we really learned from our mistakes?

In answer to that question, we might look no further than Matt Hancock’s recently assembled Healthtech Advisory Board (HAB) – amongst which, practising clinicians are the most notable absentees. And it is because their absence that, for some, the appointment of the HAB regretfully serves as yet another example of our healthcare system failing to connect high-level strategy with ground-level action.

Assessing the disconnect

Indeed, this is not an isolated instance of disconnect existing between the “centre” and the frontline in contemporary healthcare strategy. Such is the significance and scale of the problem that, before the HAB had been assembled, the Silver Buccaneers – the advisory board for the PR and marketing company, Silver Buck – had been discussing it within the context of driving innovation.

“I think it’s almost oxymoronic: the idea that very large, highly centralised institutions and bureaucracies – no matter how good the people within them – can deliver innovation. The best they can do is remove some of the barriers for those that are closer and at the right scale to actually make stuff happen,” explained Jon Hoeksma, the CEO and founder of Digital Health.

Hoeksma is not alone in his criticisms of a top-down management culture within the NHS, with it often cited as the Achilles heel of innovation in UK healthcare. However, there is a strong counter-argument to the notion that all national organisations are restricting innovation by trying to deliver it themselves: “Our job nationally is more about trying to make sure that we’re not a barrier to brilliant local innovation, rather than taking responsibility for making sure there is top-down driven innovation,” said Matt Neligan, the Director of Data Transformation at NHS Digital.

Nevertheless, and while some national organisations might well have begun to understand and recognise how best to foster and drive innovation in healthcare, the Buccaneers agree that the “centre” can do more to maximise UK innovation by permitting and furthermore encouraging more ground-up solutions.

“We need to enable people on the ground to move away from command and control models of leadership,” explained Yvonne Goff, the Chief Clinical Information Officer of the Health Service Executive. “We need to give them the bandwidth to be able to self-govern and self-organise. I believe that the best way to make a success of a team, is by giving them what they need, getting out of their way and letting them deliver; innovation is about engaging and empowering people who actually deliver healthcare.”

Ground-level action

Of course, this isn’t a new idea – when empowered with the licence and ability to adopt their own healthcare solutions, local organisations can and are championing innovation – the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, for example, allows its clinical team to work closely with companies to deliver and refine new, innovative healthcare solutions.

“I think there’s nothing better than allowing our clinical team a little bit of space to work in innovative ways with companies,” explained Richard Corbridge, the Chief Digital Information Officer for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

“We’ve had instances where, rather than paying a supplier, we’ve given them a member of our IT staff and an A&E clinician for one day a week. This has completely revitalised them and allowed them to deliver something that I genuinely believe will be huge for how they do stuff. Because they have real clinical experience of front-line, they are able to test things out as part of each of their delivery phase.”

In fact, there’s a strong and growing number of professionals – operational, clinical and technical – rebuffing the more traditional approach to healthcare innovation and saying “no, we want to do more than just take a product off the shelf.”

“From my experience, a lot of people actually want to go through that process of understanding that journey of the initial idea, right through to development,” explained Dom Cushnan, the Digital Programmes Manager at NHS Horizons.

These signs are encouraging, but they need to be sustained and furthermore encouraged by the “centre” – which can and invariably should do more to maximise UK innovation. Indeed, it’s time to move away from a system whereby centralised institutions and bureaucracies make decisions on behalf of healthcare professionals, to one that takes more seriously their individual needs and requirements.


About Silver Buck

We are a specialist international, PR marketing, events and business acceleration agency completely dedicated to the health and IT industry. Established in London in 2018, we are new-era health and care IT agency supporting the most innovative start-ups, the biggest health-tech organisations and the most forward-thinking healthcare providers, to get the right message heard and to drive meaningful engagements that have the ability to transform health and care.

Whilst we pride ourselves on bespoke PR, marketing and business strategies and tactics we understand that some organisations need a quick, focused solution to get them off the ground. We’ve designed four ready-made packages to help take the weight of your shoulders.