The best improvements often come from frontline staff. Keith Chantler offers some tips to ensure these innovators can make their ideas a reality

Illustration showing a man holding a lightbulb

Every year some of the best ideas on how to improve NHS services are unlocked by staff on the front line; a crucial source of innovation for the healthcare sector.

Frontline staff have an invaluable insight into their specialist areas, and therefore often see issues and find simple solutions to problems that may otherwise go undetected.

‘Frontline staff often see issues and find simple solutions to problems that may otherwise go undetected’

It is crucial to capture these innovations, and empower individuals to push their ideas forward to the next level. Taking such a leap can appear complex and time consuming; however, encouraging and supporting individuals to develop their ideas could ultimately improve the quality of patient care. 

There is a pool of great ideas out there so it is important to keep the innovative spirit alive. People across the healthcare sector are being increasingly urged and encouraged to come up with new ways of working to facilitate transformation and improvement, as various success stories demonstrate, and it is such examples that inspire others to explore this further and take action.

Fostering an innovative spirit

It is not unusual for people who have nurtured an idea for some time to then realise they lack the expertise to bring their innovation to market. Consequently their idea never sees the light of day and falls at the first hurdle.

Inevitably there will be ideas with great potential that slip through the net. However, it is important not to sit back on the idea, and instead bring it to fruition. Innovations help solve various problems and issues in the NHS, and even if it does not necessarily reinvent the wheel, a new or improved solution for an already existing concept can be equally as valuable.

Whether you are working alone or in collaboration with a colleague, if you think that your idea could help other NHS organisations or that it could become a commercial product, here are some top tips to help you with what to consider when starting to develop an innovative product, and for those who have already started, a checklist to work from.

Types of innovation

  • Education and training materials
  • Medical devices and equipment
  • New training models
  • Different uses for drugs
  • Software and information services
  • Improved ways of delivering healthcare
  • New lab tests
  • Services to other organisations
  • Assessment or diagnostic screening tools

Research the nature and extent of the problem

The first tip is to gauge the size of the problem that your idea addresses, for instance, the number of patients affected, or the cost of the existing solution. Also, is the innovation unique to your own area, or do other organisations across the country experience the same issue? 

Could non-NHS organisations in the UK, or overseas, use the product? Addressing these questions will help establish a better understanding of the level of demand, and subsequently forecast sales per year. Spend time ensuring there isn’t an existing solution to the problem currently available, as well as understanding how your idea is an improvement over existing solutions. 

What are the unique selling points, and what makes it different from anything else on the market? Make a detailed list of the benefits, together with the proposed costs of implementation, and think about whether the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

Innovations in practice: Butterfly Pillow

The Getting to Know Your Baby nCPAP Pillow, which is otherwise known as the Butterfly Pillow, was developed by a neonatal nurse at Liverpool Women’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. It helps NHS staff to administer nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP) to premature infants by supporting the child’s head and ensuring the airways are fully open.

Innovations in practice: Patientrack

Patientrack uses available technology to record measurements taken at the bedside of hospital patients, calculate the risk of adverse events for each patient, and enable your clinical staff to address patient needs effectively to prevent adverse consequences.

Patientrack’s clinical champion, a crucial care consultant at Central Manchester University Hospital Trust (CMFT), helped to develop and trial the software.

Understand the level of support needed

To allow an idea to grow, support and encouragement is crucial. Do you have a culture in your organisation that supports innovation? It also helps if someone can champion the product and assume responsibility to progress action points.

Establish the level of resources needed including staff, materials, and equipment. Include the financial aspect too; is external funding necessary? If so there are several sources of funding to explore including the Department of Health; Technology Strategy Board; Invention for Innovation; NESTA; or venture capital funding. The path you decide to pursue is very much dependent on the type of innovation.

Professional support is invaluable, and innovation service organisations can provide expert advice and guidance to help ensure all the bases are covered.

Safeguard your ideas

Protecting an innovation with intellectual property rights is imperative. If the product is particularly inventive, a patent may be necessary. A unique name or logo associated with the product may require a trademark. If a new design is created there are design rights to look at, and copyright issues to consider with materials or software.

Innovations in practice: SAGE & THYME

A training programme, for all levels of clinical and non-clinical staff, on how to listen and respond to patients, and indeed anyone, with concerns or in distress. It has been licensed to, and used in, more than 50 NHS and other healthcare organisations.

SAGE & THYME was developed by clinical staff at the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust and a patient.

Innovations in practice: RehabAngel

The RehabAngel is a rehabilitation device that allows allied health professionals and clinicians to prescribe a range of graduated non, partial and full weight bearing exercises, targeting specific muscle groups in the legs.

This device was the brainchild of a specialist podiatrist working at Central and Eastern Cheshire Primary Care Trust.

Fully test the idea

Think about how to demonstrate that the product actually works as intended; are there any simple tests that can be conducted? Will funding be required to support the evaluation?

For products that need to be tested on patients, or use their tissue, information or data, ethical approval must be gained. If the innovation is a medical device such as an instrument, apparatus, or appliance, it must meet medical device regulations and have a CE mark before it can be placed on the market.

Your own research and development department can be a further source of advice.

Maintain confidentiality

Having an innovation is incredibly exciting, and although you may want to shout it from the roof tops, it’s best to bide your time and wait until everything is in place.

Until it’s fully developed and has the appropriate IP protection, keep your idea confidential. A confidential disclosure agreement is invaluable to further protect your idea and keep it safe. This means that it will not be spoken about, shown, published, and so on.

Keith Chantler is executive director at TRUSTECH, an innovation management service for NHS organisations within the North West and a part of a national network of NHS innovation hubs