Liz Mear, Chief Executive, The Innovation Agency Guy Boersma, MD, Kent Surrey and Sussex AHSN Deborah Evans, MD, West of England AHSN
It’s been three years since the start of the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), and since the three of us took up our posts (leading AHSNs in Kent, Surrey and Sussex; West of England; and the North West Coast respectively). In that time, what impact have AHSNs had, and what have we learnt?
First, a quick recap. The key tasks of AHSNs are to collaborate with partners to adopt and spread proven innovations that improve health; and support citizens to self-manage so they don’t need to use health services. We help economic growth by supporting pharma, med-tech and digital business to bring innovative solutions into the public sector.
We work with NHS organisations, local authorities, universities, third sector partners and industry. We want to prevent illness and harm and our key collaborators in this are the public, service users and patients, who can do so much more to manage their own health conditions, given access to the right tools and information.
To form collaborations and deliver innovation into practice requires deep and meaningful engagement between partners who work in different sectors and very often, have different languages, different cultures and different ways of working.
How are we doing? We think we’re making a quite an impact, particularly in four ways:
Our first task was to build confidence and trust between parts of the system that hadn't been brought together before. We drew upon research by John Gabbay and Andree Le May (Skilled for Improvement?, Health Foundation, 2014) that showed that lack of engagement between organisations can cause innovation and improvement to fail. We’ve found a huge variation in capability between NHS organisations in terms of their own capability to support innovation and improvement and we particularly work with those who need this support. We ran, and still run, large-scale events to make introductions and break down barriers, perceived or real, between potential collaborators and innovators.
This has been the key to our success – we’ve learnt that you simply can’t skip the step of creating strong networks and alliances - this paves the way for collaboration and sustained improvement. Working within NHS systems means we are often required to produce instant results, but this is often not possible and positive impacts will not be sustained without building strong and meaningful partnerships. We have continually repeated this as a mantra to our political masters.
Running Patient Safety Collaboratives
That we had established a strong regional presence and effective networks led to us being awarded contracts to run the Patient Safety Collaboratives (PSCs). England’s 15 PSCs are part of the vision to make England the safest health system in the world and our PSC work is aimed at preventing avoidable harm as well as creating cultures of learning and leadership to ensure safe care and treatment. We add value to what individual organisations can do and we are contributing at system wide and national level. We are active in all care settings, including primary care, nursing homes and mental health.
Pooling resources to support innovators
We have developed a very strong network of the 15 AHSNs, where we combine funds to run programmes such as the National innovation Accelerator. In its first year, the programme has supported 17 fellows to introduce into the NHS their high impact, tried and tested innovations – ranging from apps, IT platforms and new models of care. This has resulted in a rapid roll out of innovations to 68 NHS organisations, benefitting over three million patients and delivering over £8m funding.
We’ve learnt that to succeed we need to share, share, and share again, being generous in sharing best practice – and to do this partners, other regions, national bodies, other countries. Coupled to this, we’ve all had to ditch the ‘not invented round here’ principle, and actively look to learn from others.
Running a national funding competition for small businesses
We lead programmes which increase economic growth and improve health care. For example, the Small Business Research Initiative provides funds to small businesses to develop innovative products that address unmet health needs.
Successful projects have been selected on their potential value to the health service and on the improved outcomes delivered to patients. This activity strengthens our individual AHSNs and has fantastic impacts on individual lives and the creation of jobs.
Our national network enables us to scale up innovation without being competitive and we hope the Improvement Alliance will do the same for improvement.
Deborah Evans, MD, West of England AHSN Guy Boersma, MD, Kent Surrey and Sussex AHSN Liz Mear, Chief Executive, The Innovation Agency (AHSN for the North West Coast)