The 19th century was a time of technological invention and innovation. The 1820s brought the electric motor and Stephenson’s passenger railway; photography was invented in 1835 and the telephone in 1876, and the 1880s gave rise to the light bulb, the steam turbine and the pneumatic tyre.

Jonathan Pearson

Jonathan Pearson

‘Penton describes how delivering change required a clear strategy, strong leadership and significant cultural change’

These pioneering technologies had several applications to contemporary health and healthcare. But it was a much simpler innovation that most significantly impacted on health and life expectancy: the humble, glazed drainage pipe and sewerage systems. Dramatically reducing diseases such as typhoid and cholera, they directly increased life expectancy and led to the decline of many infectious diseases.

In the same way, the fire and rescue service’s experience over the past few decades shows that tenaciously focusing on improving simple things can deliver remarkable results. As Alan Penton notes, some things aren’t very “sexy” but they can be effective, simple and powerful.

Three elements

Today we have a spectacular array of new technologies and advances that can improve health and healthcare, but this brings with it the challenge of seeing the wood for the trees. Of our new technologies, which ones can help with current health challenges, like obesity? A lesson from the fire and rescue service − and from the drainage pipe − is to focus on the simple and effective things.

The fire and rescue service also changed things outside its traditional remit because these were the things that had the biggest impact on its objectives. Likewise the sewerage system was not a part of the healthcare system in the 19th century, but it had a huge impact on health. In the same way today we need to look outside of healthcare for things that will have a significant impact on health and wellness.

Alan Penton describes how delivering change required a clear strategy, strong leadership and significant cultural change. These are the three key elements required to succeed. When all three are aligned effectively, true change can be achieved, making the simple givens from elsewhere an everyday reality: drainage systems can be constructed and cholera can be defeated; smoke alarms can be installed and domestic fires can be reduced to an all time low. l

Jonathan Pearson is director of Finnamore

Alan Penton: 'The idea that it will take the NHS five years to change is planning to fail'