A younger generation of leaders is at the forefront of a digital revolution in the NHS, says Polly Jones, and they can drive change without using old fashioned working groups and committees

Polly Jones

Polly Jones

This year, the free bottles of water on the King’s Fund stand at the NHS Confederation conference asked us if we had “the bottle to think differently”, to lead the NHS differently.

‘We don’t need to wait for permission or follow a structure to do something’

It’s time for a younger generation of leaders to make their mark. In fact, it’s already under way. And if we’re serious about harnessing new approaches to culture and care then it’s also time for every board in the NHS to have at least one executive director under 30. (Here I declare my interest: I am a member of “generation Y”).

Generation Y brings new attitudes, skill sets and values to the NHS workforce. We are already leading on the ground, with such initiatives as NHS Change Day, NHS Hack Day and many other ongoing social movements for quality improvement.

NHS dack day

NHS dack day

Among our defining characteristics as a generation is a bottom-up attitude. The digital technology in which we are native means we work in inclusive and instantaneous ways. We are hardwired to have everything at our fingertips instantly, arguably making us more responsive and passionate about instantaneous change. Committees and working groups are not intrinsic to our “just do it” spirit.

Breaking down barriers

Generation Y thinks differently. We have grown up with online networks without hierarchical boundaries. We don’t need to wait for permission or follow a structure to do something.

We want to start forming our own legacy in the NHS now; not to be handed something we won’t have time to change when the current leadership retires.

If you have an idea, good: put it online with enough excitement and energy and get enough followers, anything can happen on the ground.

A great example of this can be seen in NHS Change Day. In three months, we got around 190,000 people to pledge to make a quality improvement in the NHS. These have been followed up by peers who are making quality improvements throughout the NHS, and we are excited to see how they have made a difference without waiting for permission.

Creating a legacy

With the growing number of women and men under 30 in the health service we should be given more opportunity to form our own legacy. Put us on the boards.

Why? Because the NHS focuses on oversight, but does not look at foresight with enough drive. There are many five year plans, but where is the 20 year plan? What are we doing to look at making things change today, now, this minute, to make healthcare fit for the long term?

‘We expect to manage our care differently in the future. We want to be more involved in shaping that now’

We are also patients − a growing group. In some urban hospitals the 25-35 age group is among the biggest growth demographics in accident and emergency attendances. To know why this is happening it’s important to understand how this generation thinks and acts differently.

We also expect to manage our care differently in the future. We want to be more involved in shaping that now.

What difference can a generation Y leadership cohort make to the NHS? More innovative ideas. Lots of enthusiasm. Recent knowledge of what’s happening on the ground. Fresh insights. The ability for the board to connect with a different group of patients and staff.

Long term vision

In future it would mean a lot of these generation Y board members returning to more junior roles in the NHS with an understanding of the impact they have in the larger system. They would feel the impact of their long term planning, which might focus minds wonderfully.

This will not just be a day job. It will be a commitment and a vocation. But it will be worth it to ensure that when we leave our legacy, we leave the NHS the way we want it to be when we need it.

So what if you are part of generation Y and want to start doing this now?

  • Get informed. It’s not difficult to be more informed than your board about what is going on in the wider NHS and your organisation. Scan social media, attend conferences, be pushy, ask questions, suggest answers. Read your board papers if you have time, or just scan agendas.
  • Spend time in as many roles as possible. Think outside the box on this. Can you go and volunteer at your hospital? Become a charity non-executive director? Do some weekend shifts as a healthcare assistant or porter in order to understand another point of view?
  • See something that works well outside the NHS. Can you find out who is doing it? How can you spend time learning from them?
  • Don’t fall into the trap of just talking: act now to make a difference.

Polly Jones is a regulatory performance manager at King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust