Ministers and NHS leaders are planning to beef up the role of academic health science networks and overhaul how £750m of “innovation” funding is deployed.

In an interview with HSJ, health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy said the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are currently reviewing how innovation funds “could be spent better to drive adoption” of new ideas.

He said a failure to scale up innovation projects “has been our Achilles’ heel”, and AHSNs will become the “overseeing authority” to help resolve this.

Proposals from the joint review are due to be published in the summer and are expected to lead to a simplification of innovation funding pots. Currently there are 38 different innovation funds, run by six different agencies (see list below), which the minister said is “probably too many”.

The intention is to reduce “duplication” and spend more on funding uptake of pilot programmes.

Lord O’Shaughnessy added: “AHSNs have been operating at only a fraction of their potential and… their (revised) licence is much more about identifying at a regional or national level innovation that can go to scale”.

Taking on an oversight role would represent a more influential role for the network of 15 regional AHSNs, which were established in 2013 to spread health innovation and generate economic growth.

In May, NHS England announced a new five-year contract for AHSNs to start on October 2018 – with a combined annual budget of £44m representing a 50 per cent increase to what had previously been planned. This is expected to bring a significant return on investment.

Lord O’Shaughnessy said there was some truth in the claim that the NHS is slow in adopting new medicines compared to the rest of Europe, and said spreading innovation through more trusts would be “another string to our bow”.

He added: “We have a fantastic R&D climate here… I don’t think it is necessarily about losing existing investment or capacity, it’s that we know we can do more and we want to attract more people to invest here by providing that follow through take-up into the NHS where those products are proven”.

The current negotiation over prices with pharmaceutical companies, a new horizon scanning accelerated access pathway, and a refocusing of innovation spend will also help speed up adoption of new medicine, he said.

Lord O’Shaughnessy said these developments will help the NHS be better prepared for the budget impact of new medicines, such as the oral drug for Hepatitis C, for which he admitted “we didn’t get it right”.

Innovation funding is currently spread across the following agencies; National Institute for Health Research; NHSE; Office for Life Sciences; Innovate UK; Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency; and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.


AHSNs beefed up amid overhaul of £750m 'innovation' budgets