Blog: Innovation into action

Dr Jonathon Gray is Chief Executive of the South West Academic Health Science Network

As we celebrate 70 years since the NHS was founded, it’s hard to grasp the range and depth of the improvements that have come with this incredible institution. Not least, as a society, we removed the fear of being unable to pay for our healthcare.

After living in Wales for much of my life, and being a great fan of the NHS’s founder Aneurin Bevan, I would strongly recommend his book, In Place of Fear, which is as relevant today as it was in 1952. Taking just one other example to show the seismic change in 70 years: back in 1948, half of the population would die before they reached the age of 65. Introducing the NHS took courage, incredible political skill, collaboration and a huge leap of faith.

The NHS didn’t happen overnight. No innovation does. Scott Belsky, an author on change, says innovation is, ‘not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.’ And the truth is that innovation can take a frustratingly long time. Whether the often-reported 17 years for something to become the norm in the NHS is still true – well, that needs retesting (and we are in a great position to test that as Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) and with our Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRCs).

Don Berwick, President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Healthcare Improvement, spoke at a King’s Fund event last week. Supported by The AHSN Network, it explored the barriers to spread and adoption, and was a great forum for discussing how we can speed up this whole process. Don reminded us that, ‘The tempo is organic; it will be slower than you think.’

There are so many examples of brilliant thinking within our NHS that we now take for granted. From childhood cancers that are now curable, cancer screening and the humble flu jab, through to routine life-changing operations such as heart transplants, joint replacements and IVF – but they all took many years to become mainstream.

AHSNs are relatively new kids on the block. As a network of fifteen across England, we have discovered and nurtured some fantastic innovations and new ways of working. Our business is innovation, yet in the first five years since we were formed in 2015, we’ve also struggled with the challenges of building capability and capacity, and a springboard to move forward quickly.

I was fortunate to be asked to speak at last week’s Kings Fund event and shared the examples of behaviour change that we are implementing to underpin spread in our own region, as well as challenging our fixation on the same old traditional approaches. Why do we still expect to innovate from behind a desk or make change happen by email?

I loved the discussion on the day and it convinced me of some key steps we need to make if we want to see great ideas spread. Firstly, we need to get out into the field, truly understand need and what drives it, build will, learn – and fail – together. Secondly, we need to seek out the disruptors – the curious, the determined, the ones who aren’t prepared to accept the status quo. These people spread ideas through the canteens and the cafés, and we must find them and help them flourish.

AHSNs are, above all, great connectors of people. We occupy a unique space with links to NHS organisations, academic research institutions, industry and the voluntary sector. In the South West, we’re proud to have built a network of over 600 people who are connected to our work, but it’s not enough. Our commitment is that we will have even more conversations and become the conveners for disruptors and their great ideas. Together we can find and share the innovations that will shape the next 70 years of the NHS.

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